Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, ''Organ,'' has been a hi-fi demo work almost from the beginning of recorded sound. No wonder, now that digital is upon us, that the record companies are having yet another go at the work to replace their often remarkable analog performances. Three recent recordings feature the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Baltimore Symphony. Two are recorded in buildings with organs and one dubs the organ onto the mastertape, a relatively recent technological experiment that many are now imitating.
DG started that dubbing trend with a crackling Daneil Barenboim/Chicago Symphony performance (2530 619) that overdubbed Gaston Litaize playing the Chartres Cathedral organ, matching it reverberation for rolling reverberation so superbly that all trace of stunt or gimmick vanished. Shortly thereafter, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic did the same thing with Leonard Raver recording the organ parts in Methuen, Mass. where the old Boston Music Hall organ now resides. The Columbia engineers did a downright poor job slicing the two in, and one is treated to the dubious aural spectacle of having the Philharmonic decay in a scant few seconds while the organ chords dissolve in a riotously long reverberation.
The new DG digital release (2532 045) features Herbert von Karajan and his glorious Berlin Philharmonic, with Pierre Cochereau at the Notre Dame de Paris organ - surely one of the noisiest instruments in that country. The blending of the two acoustical locales is intermittently fine. The performance is beyond cavil - vividly theatrical, limpidly beautiful, and as thrilling in the finale as one is ever apt to hear - albeit in a somewhat Germanic vein. Sonically it's not really up to the usual DG standards - and surely not up to the Barenboim performance, which remains an extraordi
nary sonic achievement. However, Karajan's way with the music is irresistible.
Sergiu Comissiona leads the Baltimore Symphony in a handsome, well-reasoned account that does not thunder as spectacularly as it might but is appealing on musical terms (Vanguard Audiophile VA 25008). The sound is fine, the orchestra plays well, and, in the National Presbyterian Church, the engineers have caught a good balance between orchestra and the John Jay Hopkins Memorial Organ played by Frederick Minger. It is issued on Vanguard's new Audiophile Recording Series - a line that just may get me listening to Vanguard records once again. Their pressings had become so terrible I had given up on them almost two years ago. This top-of-the-line series is manufactured by KM Records in Burbank, Calif., on German Teldec vinyl, and the improvement is radical. Bravo!
Telarc Records is usually incomparable in its recorded sound. Thus the performance with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (TELARC 10051) is a major disappointment. The engineers misjudged the acoustics of St. Francis de Sales Church and the overall sound is surprisingly muddy.
RCA continues its reprocessing of older classic recordings on its Red Seal .5 Series with the issue of the justly famous and beloved performance with Charles Munch, the Boston Symphony, and organist Berj Zamkochian (ATL1-4039). There is an added brilliance to the sound, the tape hiss is virtually gone, and the performance continues to amaze for its quintessentially Gallic thrill and bite.