Philadelphia Orchestra – Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall

0 of 5 stars

Toccata Festiva, Op.36
Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78

Olivier Latry (organ)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Recorded in May 2006 in Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: ONDINE ODE 1094-5 [CD/SACD Hybrid]
Duration: 79 minutes

This is a recording of the concert that saw the inauguration of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s home (since 2001), Verizon Hall. It is, we are told, “the largest concert hall organ in the United States” and includes 110 stops and nearly 7,000 pipes – the work of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd (based in Lake City, Iowa). Fred J. Cooper was a resident of Philadelphia, a jeweller, organist and organ-music enthusiast. The instrument that bears his name in Verizon Hall is a magnificent beast, fulsome, rich, variegated and capable of extremes of timbre and register – it sounds marvellous in this absolutely first-class recording: vivid and tangible without being intimidating and claustrophobic (and with a wide dynamic range) and with the organ itself reproduced with startling fidelity but also with space and depth.

The concert consisted entirely of organ-and-orchestra works and also included the premiere of Gerald Levinson’s Toward Light – a shame that this piece could not be included as a ‘bonus disc’. Presumably the concert was played more than once, as would be typical for an American orchestra’s subscription programme (the inauguration date was 11 May 2006), and presumably accounts for the less specific “May 2006” credit in the booklet; if not, and these are one-off performances, then they are played to a remarkably high standard even allowing the pedigree of the musicians involved.

Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva was the ideal start to the concert, for the work was written, in 1960, for the last new organ the Philadelphia Orchestra was presented with (in its then home, the Academy of Music). The present performance does full justice to the work’s celebratory nature, powerful and colourful but not relying solely on decibels and rhetoric. Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is thrillingly brought off, whether in stentorian outburst, exuberance or sombre beauty. Especially notable is the variegation that the strings bring to their task in an account that is notably integrated and brimming with life and feeling. In both works Oliver Latry (organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) is a master of the new instrument as he conjures waves of sound, and intimacy, that is spellbinding.

Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No.3 (sometimes, as here, erroneously entitled “Organ”) was a fitting climax to the concert(s) – but this is not an organ concerto, it is a masterly symphony, brilliantly orchestrated, that just happens to have an organ included, an instrument no more important than any other and, indeed, it contributes only to the second and fourth movements (the four movements are arranged into two lots of two), subtly underpinning in the former (here with some tummy-wobbling low notes) and adding a splash of grandeur to the latter. There are moments in the finale when the organ is rather too prominent if nowhere near the hideous racket that wrecked Karajan’s DG recording.

For the most part Eschenbach recognises the music’s Frenchness and doesn’t attempt to inflate the symphony beyond itself: tempos flow, textures are lucid, and if ensemble is not always absolutely pristine, then there is real appreciation of Saint-Saëns’s delectable invention. Eschenbach drives the scherzo maybe a bit hard (but he knows he has an orchestra that can play with pin-point precision) and the spectral trio could have relaxed more, yet all of Saint-Saëns’s amazing detail (including piano/two players) is there – it just passes by a mite too quickly. The ‘interlude’ that heralds the last movement is suitably ethereal, but, frankly, the organ’s entry to cue the finale is just too much – it sounds great but is overpowering in a way that tilts the balance too much to the organ and goes, I suggest, against the composer’s more blended intentions. There’s no doubting though that the build-up to the final bars is thrilling if a little too hectoring and obvious.

Nevertheless, with sound good enough to bring about a serious falling out with your neighbours (some of the organ’s subterranean vibrations could crack a few walls) this is a very impressive release, handsomely documented – the photographs included in the booklet include one of Saint-Saëns playing an organ.

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