Harold C. Schonberg, the famous New York critic and terror of fairways, wrote of Saint-Saëns in 1969, "It is not generally realized that he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart."
On the basis of SS’s symphonies, I find that hard to believe. Works such as the Symphony in A Minor (1853), Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major (1853), the plangently named Urbs Roma (1856) and Symphony No. 2 (1859) might be on a bigger scale than the likes of K 110, K 129, K 130 and K 132 (and to be fair to Mozart, he had already written K 183, K 200 and K 201, let alone works such as Mitridate and Exsultate Jubilate by the age of 18), but they’re decidedly lacking in distinction, incidental beauties aside. Impeccable craftsmanship will only get you so far – just ask Mendelssohn. There are nuggets throughout but they never amass into ingots. To my mind, that leaves the Organ Symphony as Saint-Säens’ signal contribution to the genre – and what a contribution it is! I never tire of the finale.
Jean Martinon, at the head of the romantically named French National Radio and Television Orchestra, recorded all the symphonies in the mid-1970s prior to his death from bone-cancer in '76. I cannot imagine more persuasive advocacy. And the performance of the Organ Symphony is a pearler. For once, I enjoy a more relaxed approach, being not without drama when required. The finale of the Organ Symphony can be more vulgar than dinner with Trimalchio or a night at the Warragul greyhounds with the brass of the Australian Knappertsbusch Association; by virtue of Martinon’s high-mindedness, this doom is averted. The acoustic – the chapel of Les Invalides – demonstrates just how synthetic alternatives from the likes of Karajan and Levine are.
This is clearly a five star production of music that is never less than interesting.