My favourite recording is from the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, 1899-1985, with E. Powers Biggs, 1906-77, as soloist on the Aeolian-Skinner Symphony Hall Organ. I have never been completely sure how much I am influenced by the latter’s name! There are five versions of this combination, three from 1957, and one each from 1963 and 1978, the latter presumably being issued as a memorial tribute to the organist.
The work was dedicated to the composer’s friend, Liszt, who died in 1886, shortly before the work was published. The orchestral forces are Wagnerian, plus the famous fours hands on a piano.
This CD, which includes Saint-Saens’ ‘Danse macabre’, also recorded by Ormandy, and ‘Le Rouet d’Omphale’, as well as Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings of 1938, brings together Marie-Claire Alain, 1926-2013, and the French Radio National Orchestra under Jean Martinon, 1910-76. Unforgivably, the location of the organ is not given whilst the recordings are from 1966-71.
There is a distinctly Gallic flavor to Martinon’s accompaniment and Alain finds a level of musical monumentality that never topples over into supersonic noise. She does not try to dominate the orchestra and but builds from her entry at the start of the finale. Soloist and conductor see the symphony as a structured whole rather than seeking to wring out the maximum of noise and excitement. Whilst the latter approach might pay dividends in the concert hall, it rapidly loses its impact on LP or CD. Few other versions create as much excitement, as opposed to mere volume in the finale. The performances of Karajan and Bernstein both drip with Romantic pretension.
Martinon is fully at home in the other Saint-Saens fillers and even manages to bring a sense of grim novelty to the old warhorse, ‘Danse macabre’. Poulenc’s concerto, commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac, formerly Winaretta Singer of the sewing-machine fortune, was new to me. The orchestra and soloist are once again united in their insightful balancing the music’s sacred and profane elements that reflect the composer’s increased response to Catholicism and the clouds of World War II.
The verve and drive of both concertos more than compensate for the quality of the the original recordings/transfers.
Next month I'll be taking part in a performance of the Poulenc. I bought the CD as a way of getting to know the work. It's a good performance nd I shan't be deleting it once our performance is history.
The Sans-Saens has pop appeal and this version is worth acquiring.