Some listeners seem to like a hugely reverberant, swampy mess of an acoustic for their Organ Symphony recordings. And this disaster from Reference Recordings gives them just that. But let me be clear, for anyone looking for a competent, modern digital recording of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, this one from Kansas City is one of the worst recordings of it I have ever heard. And not just from a technical/sound-quality perspective, but as a performance as well.
I'll not go into great detail, as this CD is not really worth the effort. So I'll summarize, starting with the performance itself. It is routine, thick, leaden and completely devoid of a sense of occasion or the slightest spark of vitality. And when the organ arrives in the final movement, it swamps the proceedings, all but drowning out the entire orchestra, obliterating details.
The recording is a swampy, heavy mess. And at the opening of the 3rd movement, we hear that now-all-too-familiar manipulation from the Reference Recordings engineers "helping" the violins by boosting their mic volumes. But it's even worse than just that. It sounds so synthetic and obviously electronically enhanced, the violins sound as if they've suddenly been moved into another room, completely separated from the acoustic which the rest of the orchestra inhabits. It sounds like additional microphones were employed but only turned on whenever the recording engineers think the violins need some help. And when they do, they are no longer part of the main acoustic. It is simply an outrageous example of knob-twiddling and unnatural electronic "enhancement" which I thought had been put to rest decades ago.
Then in the finale, when the organ takes over the acoustic (and "take over" it most certainly does), the strings might just have well packed it up and gone home for the day. Their details are practically inaudible. I hope they didn't exert themselves too much trying to be heard. As to the organ sound itself, it is full-bodied and sufficiently massive in size, and it does not sound nasal or harsh over the treble frequencies (as in some recordings of an organ). However, the pedals aren't particularly deep or in any way "impressive".
I suppose some of these problems with the recording itself could be tolerated if the performance were in any way extraordinary. But it sounds as if the only objective was to fill the hall with a thick wash of sound, smothering all life out of it with a thick, heavy blanket. I encourage anyone who thinks this is a good recording of this piece to pull out their nearly-60-year-old RCA recording of Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony and give it a fresh listen. Immediately one hears life, energy, excitement and orchestral involvement which are completely missing in Kansas City. Not to mention the immediacy and realism of the recording. There are countless examples I could point you to, but I chose this one to demonstrate how Reference Recordings can't even begin to match an ancient analogue recording from back in the infancy of stereo recording (1959), let alone most modern digital recordings one could name.
As to the other two selections included here, they are well played by the principal violin and cello of this orchestra and the recording quality is much improved. It is well focused, has fine presence, and a natural acoustic. However, even here, the readings seem routine and lack spontaneity. Fine players they may be, but they seem to have been intimidated by the presence of the recording microphones.
All in all, even compared to some sub-par recordings from the Kansas City Philharmonic, and many recent mediocre efforts from this record label, this one is an absolute stinker.