Peter Hurford

Saint-Saëns: Organ Symphony; Poulenc: Organ Concerto

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It's really saying something when recordings from the 1980s and 1990s have already been labeled as "Legendary Recordings" on a major label like Decca. Yet under the baton of Charles Dutoit, the Montreal Symphony, and the Philharmonia Orchestra have achieved just that. Although Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony is most well known for the inclusion of the organ, the instrument plays for only a very small portion of the work. The rest of the composition relies heavily on the strings to carry the piece. The sound that Dutoit coaxes from the strings of the Montreal Symphony ranges deftly from crisp and sparkling to lush and velvety, and it rivals the legendary string sound of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra -- an ensemble that Dutoit, ironically, would himself conduct. More than 50 years later in the history of French compositions for organ and orchestra comes Poulenc's Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani in G minor. Here, the organ is clearly given much more emphasis throughout the composition. Like his predecessor, Poulenc relies heavily on the strings of the orchestra, so much so that he omits every other instrument from the accompaniment save for the timpani. Unlike the Montreal Symphony, however, the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra are not quite as tight and precise, especially in faster sections. The recording made by the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of David Hill may be a preferred alternative for this work.

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