Kantorow continues his Saint-Saens survey for BIS with the complete Symphonies on SACD. The first 4 are excellent, but...
It's great to see Jean-Jacques Kantorow continue his Saint-Saens survey for BIS. Over the years he's conducted the Piano Concertos and Africa, variously with different pianists (Ogawa, Mikkola, and more recently, his son, Alexandre Kantorow), and two of the early Symphonies (#2 and the F major 'Urbs Roma'); and performed as soloist in the Violin Concertos. And just this year, he's turned his attention to a complete set of the Symphonies on SACD, with successful remakes of the earlier two readings dating from 1996.
Beginning with the early Symphony in A major, and the first 2 numbered ones, he's off to a fantastic start. He's finished up with the Organ Symphony on the companion disc. And unfortunately it is a different matter entirely.
But, as usual, I'm getting way ahead of myself.
Disc One gives us three of the four early, lesser-known Symphonies - 75+ minutes of glorious music. Kantorow brings them to life as never before, helped by the excellence of the BIS SACD sound. There is such variety of textures, articulation, color and spirit. He brings real inspiration and importance to these works, revealing them to be mature, fully developed and musically pleasing in a way that Martinon - as good as his were - didn't quite achieve in his wonderful, pioneering 1975 survey for EMI.
The same applies to the early Symphony in F ('Urbs Roma') on the second installment. We are treated to a beautifully atmospheric and highly energized account of it. And what a terrific Symphony this is in Kantorow's hands!
In all fairness, the recorded sound plays a large part in the success of Kantorow over Martinon in these early works. And it really is exceptionally good. But that's not all. Kantorow's readings sparkle with joy and charm, singing tunefulness, and drama and excitement when called for. The slow movements, in particular, are beguiling in their musical and tuneful expressiveness. And the Scherzos are simply delectable.
As to the Organ Symphony, composed some 30 years later, the competition on record is crushing. But good modern recordings of it are surprisingly hard to come by. While I have no use for yet another recording of it, I had high expectations of this one from Kantorow and the experts at BIS.
The opening Allegro moderato starts promisingly and is actually pretty good. It is played with rhythmic precision and develops a great sense of drama. And so far, the sound is perfectly fine.
The Adagio, then, is a foreboding of what's to come later in the finale, when the initial organ entry, as recorded here, sounds rather sour and has no audible pedal tones. They simply do not exist. I listened to this recording on my main system (which employs large, full-range speakers which are powerful down to 35hz, and pretty respectable even at 32hz, the low C on the piano) and on a high-quality headphone system - both with the same results. The entire bass range is mysteriously absent. But mercifully, the tempo is not funerial, as it so often is; Kantorow understands it still must have momentum and a singing line. And despite the missing tummy-rumbling pedals, this is a tender, moving account of it. The strings are simply lovely, actually.
The Allegro which begins the Second Movement (often mistakenly referred to as the third movement) brings results similar to the opening - crisp articulation, with a good tempo, but ultimately unexceptional. It could use more bite and power from the strings - they are a bit too distantly mic'd. But the woodwinds are excellent in those articulated, double-tongued 16th notes, helped by a closer microphone placement. And later, the orchestra plays some exquisite pianissimos.
And then comes the Finale. And the organ is flat - or more accurately, the orchestra has tuned itself sharp - or not at all - to the organ. And, oddly, perhaps sensing the dull organ sound, the engineers give the organ a sudden boost of the microphones, with a twiddle of the knobs, on the fourth chord of its ff main theme (1:14-1:15 in), where the upper fundamentals are audibly turned up mid-phrase. Yes, here on a modern digital recording, we hear the engineers twiddling/fiddling with the volume knobs during the music. And even then, the organ is still rather anemic and distant and takes on an even more acerbic, nasal timber. And as feared, there are no pedal tones - not even octave-overtones that I can hear. Nor is there much presence in bass range from the orchestra. The bass drum contributes nothing more than a hard "thud", the timpani are not deep or powerful, and the cymbals are clangy. Louder passages become congested and it sounds like the acoustic is overloaded in climaxes.
The final straw comes at the very end, where in the final two bars, the timpani (marked with accents in the score) are backwardly balanced and sound miles away from the nearest microphone - thus denying us the drama and thrill of a triumphant conclusion. It all seems to fizzle out as if everyone is tired and just wants to get it over with.
I realize this is not an Organ Concerto, and an unusual prominence of the organ is not necessarily what Saint-Saens had in mind. However, "The King of Instruments" should surely make more of an impact than what it manages here. I literally was reminded of an electronic Hammond church organ rather than a mighty pipe organ in a major symphony hall. If not afforded an immense, powerful presence, at least full-range bass pedals shouldn't be too much to ask of a new digital recording from a major label. Furthermore, BIS does give the organist top billing on the front and rear covers, and in the booklet, as if it actually were an organ concerto. Just saying...
I've heard many dismal recordings of this Symphony over the years. The swampy, outrageously bass-heavy mess on the 2015 Reference Recordings in Kansas City immediately comes to mind as being one of the worst ever, but for entirely different reasons than this BIS. And while this one isn't as bad as that, it's not very good. And that is a real pity; Kantorow is a wonderful interpreter of Saint-Saens and the Royal de Liege is an accomplished orchestra.
Revisiting my collection, I was hard pressed to find one that I remember being outstanding. There is always the old standby - the 1959 Munch/Boston/RCA, which still sounds pretty amazing in its 2004 SACD remastering, putting most subsequent recordings to shame. But I was reminded of a very good digital one: the live 2007 Eschenbach/Philadelphia Orchestra SACD on Ondine. Anyone thinking I'm being too hard on the BIS should listen to this Ondine, where the organ is perfectly focused, perfectly in tune with the orchestra, and sounds massive (without being at all overblown like the aforementioned one in Kansas City) and positively gorgeous. It's a great performance too (much more exciting than I had remembered), but alas is rather spoiled by an overenthusiastic audience whose members were hell-bent in being the first ones to start cheering before the last chord had even stopped. SMH.
I have been listening to some superb recordings lately from BIS, of chamber ensembles and full symphony orchestras alike. Thus I am perplexed by the recorded sound on this one. And the DSD/SACD format seems to have helped none at all. (For the record, the multi-channel mix is 5.0 - i.e. there is no sub-woofer channel - so the missing bass isn't hiding there.) The early Symphonies are revelatory and splendid in every way. But this Organ Symphony is a lamentable conclusion to an otherwise outstanding set.