SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”; Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28; La muse et le poète for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, Op. 132 – Michael Stern, Kansas City Sym./ Noah Geller, violin/ Mark Giibs, cello/ Jan Kraybill, organist – Reference Recordings RR136 HDCD, 61:24 (6/9/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

One can always depend on a fresh version of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony to get released on a regular basis, but this new disc from Reference Recordings also has some other gems, like the Le Muse and the more well known Rondo capriccioso to add to the program.

The Organ Symphony No. 3 is well-known, and was a favorite of the composer, who said “I gave every thing to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”

It’s a gigantic work, with organ, a large orchestra and two pianos. For years it’s been a favorite demonstration disc for audiophiles, and no wonder with it’s aggressive playing and wide dynamics. The organ only appears in the second and last movements, but it is very memorable.

Reference Recordings has long been a leader in high quality releases, so this is no ordinary recording. It’s done in the HDCD process. Although playable on any CD player, you’ll get the very best sound if your player is equipped to handle the format. I listened on both an Oppo BDP-103 and an Emotive ERC-3 – both included HDCD playback.

The Rondo and La Muse sounded wonderful. Strings were very smooth, and like all the Reference Recordings I’ve heard, the image of the instruments is sharp and stable. Violinist Noah Geller in the Capriccioso and violinist Noah Geller and cellist Mark Gibbs in La muse do very well with these challenging pieces.

The Organ Symphony was quite spectacular sounding, although musically in places a bit laid back to my ear. I’m spoiled on the wonderful Charles Munch Boston Symphony performance on RCA, and when you get used to those tempi and the emotional engagement everything else seems a bit off. Still, this is a superb and thoughtful performance, never over the top in terms of recording technique or the performance. The last movement of the symphony is explosive, but the organ never overpowers the orchestra, and the solo pianos are never lost in the bombastic finale. Kudos to organist Jan Kraybill.  The Kansas City Symphony continues to please as it has become a major U.S. Orchestra under Michael Stern.

I was surprised my review copy was not an SACD, but apparently a hi-res disc is coming at some point. No matter really, this CD is hard to fault, and in my experience the very best standard CD recordings are very competitive with the best of the high resolution products. It’s done in a very natural style, no bloated instruments from too close microphone placement.

Reference Recordings has produced a fine disc, with very well-played Saint-Saèns and a quality recording.

—Mel Martin