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CD Review

Camille Saint-Saëns

Brilliant 94618
  • Symphony #3 in C minor *
  • Symphony in F Major "Urbs Roma"
* Bernard Gavorty, organ
Orchestre National de l'ORTF/Jean Martinon
Brilliant Classics 94618
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Jean Martinon did a lot during his long career, but his devotion to underrated repertoire and his difficulties in the United States tend to overshadow his considerable accomplishments. His work in Chicago is almost all excellent, and so too are his forays into the French music he so adored. These famous recordings have been available on EMI. Musical Heritage Society, and Brilliant Classics, but to my knowledge this is the first time any of the set has been released as a single disc, anywhere, by anybody. It should win the set some friends, especially those who aren't sure they need the complete canon.

The third symphony, subtitled "Organ", has always been an audiophile favorite, and one of music lovers everywhere. It's also one of the easiest symphonic works to mess up, and many recordings mangle it pretty badly. While not as flashy as some conductors of his day – such as Karajan, Ozawa, and Bernstein – Martinon's reading is arguably better than any of theirs. The great French maestro has a characteristically French sounding band, and he revels in it, from the watery brass to the less than perfect strings. And it works very well. It's most comparable to fellow Frenchman Paul Paray's classic Mercury disc, full-throated and equally imperfect technically. Paray and Martinon focus less on technical merit than a seemingly effortless ebb and flow that makes this often clunky work sound entirely natural. That's not to say that the playing is bad, but this is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and in this case, that's a plus. And speaking of natural sounding, the organ sounds wonderful here. Martinon later recorded this work on Erato, but this is better still.

As for the Symphony in F, it is the composer's longest orchestral work, which hardly makes it the best. It's typical of the man's work, bright, full of colors, and well-written. There is nothing especially fancy here. Martinon plays it like a masterpiece, and his watery sounding French band does a very fine job. Should you not want the complete symphonies set on EMI, MHS, Brilliant Classics, or whoever will release these classic performances next, you can grab this budget disc with confidence.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman

Trumpet