Jean-Francois Heisser / Daniel Roth / Les Siècles

Saint-Saëns: Symphonie No. 3 "Avec Orgue"; Concerto pour Piano No. 4

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Les Siècles is one of France's finest early music ensembles, and its work in repertoire from the Baroque era to the Romantic period is fascinating for its precision, attention to historical details, and most of all, commitment to original instrumentation. This live album of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 in C minor, "Organ," and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor offers a close-up presentation of Les Siècles' methods and sounds, and the interpretations by conductor François-Xavier Roth, pianist Jean-François Heisser, and organist Daniel Roth give a clear idea of what they and the ensemble deliver as authentic Romantic sound. In these performances, the orchestra is chamber size, the strings play with minimal vibrato, the woodwinds have a slightly pungent quality, and the brass have a distinct cutting edge, unlike modern instruments. Yet there is a striking imbalance when the organ and percussion are heard in the last half of the symphony, due to the extremely reverberant space of Sainte-Sulpice, Paris. The orchestra seems tiny in comparison with the tremendous volume of the full Cavaillé-Coll organ, while the timpani and bass drum create an enormous roar that might be thrilling for anyone seeking a big noise, but unnecessarily explosive for admirers of this work. The balance of forces is much better in the concerto, which was recorded in the drier acoustics of the Opéra Comique, Paris, and the finer points of the playing and the instruments can be heard more clearly. While this disc is unlikely to supplant recordings of cherished modern performances of these works, it's worth hearing to get an idea of the colors Saint-Saëns had to work with. Harmonia Mundi's sound is clean and focused, except where the acoustics blur the sound.

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