SAINT-SAËNS Symphony No 3
There is an appealing family feel to this disc. Rather than parachuting in any headline-catching international soloists, the Kansas City Symphony has enlisted its concertmaster and principal cello as protagonists in two of the Saint-Saëns works. Noah Geller is soloist in the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, and he is joined by cellist Mark Gibbs in the once rarely heard but now almost ubiquitous La muse et le poète. Backed by airy orchestral textures, Geller exudes lyrical warmth and a perky rhythmic spirit in the first work, and in the second he uses the violin’s wily flights of fantasy to engage Gibbs’s poetic cello in an intimate dialogue.
Then comes the big beast of the programme, but, as always, the crucial test is not so much the volume of the organ but the way in which the orchestral context of the symphony as a whole is established. Here Michael Stern impressively injects impetus into the first section’s sinewy fabric, alert to instrumental colour and the contrapuntal discipline and intrigue of the writing. The organ, making its muted first entry in the Adagio, is a 5,548-pipe Casavant Frères instrument, an integral part of Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts where the recording was made, as indeed is Jan Kraybill who plays it. Stern crafts a proper, stately Adagio but an Adagio with momentum and shapely contours, and he ignites real fire in the Allegro moderato of the symphony’s second part. When the tempo changes to presto, the piano’s arpeggios and scales are prominent enough to make their point without leaping out at you, just as the organ in the finale asserts its grandeur without overwhelming the orchestral palette.
In all sorts of respects – gleaming sonority, lucid architecture, interpretative stature and sheer dynamic thrill – the 1976 recording by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago SO, linked up to Gaston Litaize at the organ of Chartres Cathedral, remains in a league of its own. But last year’s high-quality release by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot of a recording made in the city’s Benaroya Hall, with the orchestra’s staff organist Joseph Adam, showed that you don’t need globally fêted artists to craft a performance of finesse, luminosity and drama. This Kansas recording is another case in point. Even in a competitive market, this version has a distinct edge.