Saint-Saëns: Orchestral Works
James Levine and the great Berlin orchestra, in cracking form, offer a performance of Saint-Saens's much recorded Third Symphony which one can unequivocally place at the top of the list. The balance between the orchestra and organ, here played so powerfully by Simon Preston, is well judged and the overall acoustic very convincing. It was obviously a great advantage to record the organist there in the Philharmonie with the orchestra, allowing him to respond to the infectious verve of their playing. Indeed, Levine directs a grippingly individual reading, full of drama and with a consistently imaginative response to the score's detail. As it so happens his timing for the first movement matches Ozawa's closely, but the extra thrust of the Berliners brings a tingling impression that his pacing is faster, partly the result of the incisive articulation of strings and woodwind alike, clarified by the brightly lit upper range of the recording. After the fervour of the first section the contrast of the Poco Adagio is the more striking. With the organ chords subtly underpinning the strings Levine creates a mood of sombre, restrained nobility. Here Ozawa is obviously more romantic, helped by the warmth of the EMI sound, but he is blander too. Just before the climax there is a pizzicato passage for the lower strings and here Levine creates a quite mysterious atmosphere of anticipation and then he lets the music expand and blossom magnificently, helped by the spectacular dynamic range of the DG recording. The climax has the greatest intensity but the tension is then allowed to ebb away naturally so that the Scherzo bursts upon the listener, exploding with the energy of the playing, and the immediacy of a multitude of bows on strings. In the engaging central section the clarity of the digital recording allows the piano detail to emerge attractively, and after the vigorous reprise Levine ends the movement with a subtle diminuendo.
The organ entry in the finale is quite magnificent, the excitement of Preston thundering out the main theme physical in its impact—it comes through the floor as well as from the speakers. The sound is massively weighty, yet absolutely clear and clean in focus. The tension of the performance is held throughout the closing section at the highest level, with an unforgettable gutsy string entry about halfway through, that almost beats the following brass passage in projected adrenalin. At the end Levine draws the threads together with a satisfying final quickening of pulse and the last, long chord is glorious. Ozawa's finale is splendid too, and the EMI disc is also in the demonstration class, but not quite so overwhelming as the DG. Overall Ozawa's reading is less gripping and the ensemble of the Paris orchestra does not quite match that of the Berlin Philharmonic in body and dynamism. Batiz's is still a very enjoyable performance on ASV, in the first two movements fresher and more spontaneous than Ozawa's, but without the power of Levine. Moreover, in the finale, which is undoubtedly exciting, the ASV organ recording is rather muddy compared with either DG or EMI. Also Batiz offers no coupling, whereas Ozawa gives us two attractive Saint-Saens symphonic poems, very well done and flattered by the bloom of the EMI stereo.
Levine's choice of coupling is an even happier one, especially as his account of Dukas's masterpiece is far and away the best available in the present catalogue. It was Stokowski who made