St. Saen’s Organ Symphony

This weekend Northrop Auditorium is celebrating the restoration of its Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, after a year and a half of work. The Minnesota Orchestra will be performing there on Friday and Saturday night, and there is a free program on Saturday morning that will feature several performers led by the U’s organist Dean Billmeyer.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s performances are especially exciting for several reasons. First of all, Northrop was where they recorded for more than a decade during the great era of American classical recordings — then the Minneapolis Symphony, they were, along with the Detroit Symphony, the flagship performers on Mercury Records’ Living Presence imprint.

The second reason its exciting is that they’ll be performing Charles Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony no. 3, commonly known as “The Organ Symphony.” Also on the program is a selection from one of Bach’s Partida and a new piece by John Harbison, What Do We Make of Bach? for Orchestra and Organ.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony is a favorite of ours. Some listeners regard him as too conservative and neo-classical, we love his rich sense of melody. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy and a piano virtuoso, so he wrote extensively for the keyboard. Remarkably, although for twenty years he was the organist at La Madeline cathedral in Paris, Saint-Saëns did not write much for the organ. In this symphony, one of his most popular works, he chose to feature the instrument.

The organ’s part in the Symphony no. 3 is hardly intended to display virtuosity, but rather to celebrate the instrument’s extraordinary dynamic range and power. Here we’ve divided the symphony into four tracks, but technically it consists of two movements. They do still follow something along the lines of the familiar four movement form. The organ enjoys its dramatic moment three quarters of the way through the work.

Franz Liszt was an admirer of Saint-Saëns, and in turn the composer dedicated it to his memory. In many ways it feels like a tribute to Liszt, even though Saint-Saëns could not have known his friend would pass away shortly after its premier.

Dean Billmeyer will be performing the organ this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. The one you’re hearing on this record is played by Franz Eibner, performing with the Vienna Philharmusica Orchestra conducted by Hans Swarowsky. There are a ton of recordings of this symphony, and honestly this is not one of the best. It just happens to be one of our favorites for is brisk pacing and the wonderful interplay between the organ and the celeste and piano which follow its exciting appearance.

Mercury released a recording the symphony by of Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony that is sure to please any audiophile, if they’re able to find a fine copy. Decca Records has recently reissued this and several other Living Presence titles on remastered 180gram LPs. Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the Symphony was a big seller and often turns up in record shops like ours (there’s one here right now). It features the legendary organist E. Power Biggs. A recording which captures the symphony’s darker, more brooding moments is the one by Charles Munch conduction the Boston Symphony on RCA’s Red Seal label. According to the liner notes, this one features another organ made by the Aeolian-Skinner company, who were based in Boston.

If you are lucky enough to hear the Organ Symphony this weekend at Northrop Auditorium, you’ll be sure to also feel it. Northrop’s 7000 pipe organ is sure to sound spectacular, especially in Saint-Saëns’s coda, where some of the bass notes are just barely in our range of hearing!


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