Saint-Saens – Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”) / Fremaux

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  • For the first time in three years, one of Saint-Saens’ greatest masterpieces returns to Better Records with truly superb nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound on both sides – just shy of our Shootout Winner – exceptionally QUIET vinyl too, the quietest copy to ever hit the site
  • Clear and transparent and natural – your ability to suspend disbelief requires practically no effort at all
  • What this copy did better than practically any other was show us just how rich, smooth and Tubey Magical 1973 EMI sound could be
  • “The whole work is a magnificent and fantastical symphonic machine that’s an apotheosis of the orchestral technology of the late 19th century.”

These Nearly White Hot Stamper pressings have top-quality sound that’s often surprisingly close to our White Hots, but they sell at substantial discounts to our Shootout Winners, making them a relative bargain in the world of Hot Stampers (“relative” being relative considering the prices we charge). We feel you get what you pay for here at Better Records, and if ever you don’t agree, please feel free to return the record for a full refund, no questions asked.

The legendary Stuart Eltham engineered this recording for EMI in 1973. You may know his work better from a longtime audiophile TAS List favorite, Massenet’s Le Cid (1971), again with Fremaux conducting the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

I had the opportunity to hear the work performed by a university orchestra (California Lutheran Symphony) years back and enjoyed it immensely. I was sitting about ten feet from the woodwind section; it’s a glorious sound from that close, I can tell you that.

Of course no pair of stereo speakers can hope to compete with a full scale pipe organ. The sound was, in a word, immense.

I’d like to think that this record affords the listener something close to that sound, but who am I kidding? No recording can even come close to capturing the sound of a live orchestra. The sound of this very record may be immersive and completely involving, allowing you to forget you’re even listening to a record at all, but the live event is an experience on another level. For rock and jazz, not so much. For orchestral music there is simply no comparison.

What the best sides of this classical masterpiece have to offer is not hard to hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1973
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

What to Listen For

Rich, rosiny, Tubey Magical strings. The copies that did the best in our shootout always had the best string tone, the most richness and the highest resolution.

Deep bass for the organ is key. Many copies were a bit bass-shy and that cost them a lot of points.

Transparency, depth and space are essential to the recreation of that “you are there” feeling, and the best copies had plenty of all three.

Size

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

1st Movement:

Adagio
Allegro Moderato
Poco Adagio

Side Two

2nd Movement:

Allegro Moderato
Maestoso
Allegro

Excerpts from a review by Tom Service on the 50 Greatest Symphonies

“I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”

Thus spake Camille Saint-Saëns about his C minor Symphony, “avec orgue” (with organ), the third and last of his symphonies, and one of the crowning glories of his prodigious life in music. This week, I make a plea that we take the Organ Symphony seriously as one of the late 19th century’s most significant and technically sophisticated orchestral works.

And also of course that we enjoy its remarkable concatenation of tunes, colours, and kaleidoscopic thematic invention that have made the symphony so popular ever since its premiere in London’s St James’s Hall in 1886, when Saint-Saëns himself conducted the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society, who had commissioned the piece.

It’s all too easy to think of the Organ Symphony as a perennial symphonic pot-boiler, one of those knackered ex-thoroughbred warhorses of the repertoire whose every appearance on concert programmes is another stage in its consignment to the orchestral glue-factory. It doesn’t help that the Big Tune of the last movement is one of the most used and abused motifs of classical music history, in everything from Disney’s Babe movies to it being adopted as the national anthem of the micro-nation of Atlantium, a postage-stamp-sized potential principality in Eastern Australia.

Its over-familiarity means it’s hard to recognise the real achievement of this symphony which fused what were genuinely cutting-edge innovations with Saint-Saëns’s inherently classical, conventional (with a small “c”) instincts. So forget what you might think you know about this symphony, and prepare to re-hear the rafinesse, joie de vivre, and technical coup-d’orchestre of arguably Saint-Saëns’s greatest single composition.

I have the image, at the end of the symphony, of the concert hall being miraculously lifted off the ground and held aloft by the combined efforts of all those pipes and all that air; all that counterpoint and all that time-stretching speeding up and slowing down; all that scraping and blowing, and all those keyboards.

The whole work is a magnificent and fantastical symphonic machine that’s an apotheosis of the orchestral technology of the late 19th century. In other words: the Organ Symphony is the definitive steampunk symphony.

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