Saints-Saens

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From Gramophone, March 1996

Saints-Saens Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, "Organ" Op. 78 Le carnival des animaux Jinho Kim (ofs) "Nicolas Kynston (org); Philharmonic Orchestra / Djong Victoria Yu. IMP Masters 30336 0001-2 (74 Minutes DDD)

Few pieces of music in the history of the gramophone can have suffered such indignities at the hands of insensitive record producers as Saint-Saens Third Symphony. A glance through the catalogues might suggest one is spoiled for choice, but to date I have found only two recordings which do full justice to the work. Now here's a third, although altogether different. For a start there is none of the aural opulence of the others - the infamously dry acoustic of the recording venue - London's Royal Festival Hall - is no match for either Boston Symphony Hall or Belfast's Ulster hall (for the RCA and Chandos discs respectively) - while Djong Victorian Yu's painstaking attention to every last detail of the score leaves little room for the lovingly nurtured melodies which characterized Charles Munich's 1959 recording or the great displays of Gallic fire ignited by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Indeed, at first hearing this seems rather a cold, clinical reading. However, this is a recording that which not only deserves repeated listening but positively demands it. Yu reveals just what a magnificent piece of music this is: shorn of its customary sonic spectacle the brilliant craftsmanship of Saint-Saens's writing is displayed in unimpeded glory.

That we hear everything in such detail is due to Jonathan Wearn's fine recording. The sound, from three microphones positioned in the stalls, will be instantly familiar to to all RFH habitues - in fact I don't think I've heard such an unquestionably "real" recording before. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than in the Carnival Of The Animals where ten double-basses ranged along the back of the platform create a striking impression of lumbering elephants (having just been on a safari in South Africa's Kruger Park I know what I'm talking about here!). Yu opts for the version of the large orchestra complete with glass harmonica (adeptly played by Alasdair Malloy), and while it is again characterized by meticulous attention to detail, it is also a performance of buoyant wit - although I wonder whether Youngho and Jinho Kim might not be in danger of overstepping the mark with their stumbling, chaotic scales in "Pianists."

Cypres et Lauriers has to be the oddest thing Saint-Saens ever wrote. After an eight minute dirge for organ solo (enlivened only by Nicolas Kynaston's impish sense of melodrama) the orchestra burst into an astonishingly vulgar display of French jingoism. Perhaps if this had been given wider currency at the time of the Treaty of Versailles (it was encompassed to celebrate its signing) the more musically sensitive of Europe's politicians might have held back from plunging into another war for fear of a similar musical exercise rising out of that conflict.

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