By a long process of osmosis, Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony (the ‘Organ’) has become almost Birmingham property.
The CBSO has had this wonderful piece in its blood since the Louis Fremaux decade of the 1970s, and the installation of Symphony Hall’s magnificent Klais organ shortly after the turn of this century made the work an obvious calling-card.
So Sunday afternoon’s performance from the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse came with a lot of baggage, and, truth to tell, it took a while for things to settle down in the busy bustlings with which the symphony opens. This was the orchestra’s only airing of the work during an extensive British tour which was ending here: the attraction of this organ and its resident wizard, Thomas Trotter, plus wide-open acoustic chambers, must have been irresistible.
The flutters soon disappeared, and the orchestra’s charismatic and expert principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev built a totally absorbing, spine-tingling reading, squeezing every oodle of tone from his remarkable string section. Thrills and spills were here a-plenty, but most memorable was the gentle ‘poco adagio’, chastely singing over Trotter’s beautifully-judged quiet organ chords.
And before this we had already heard glories, with a tight account of Rachmaninov’s late ‘Symphonic Dances’, no emotion recollected in tranquillity here, but a communication of implacable menace and tension only occasionally resolving in hard-won calm.
Sokhiev made much of the piano’s presence in the orchestra (a passage with strings in the first movement was almost concerto-like), and allowed us to relish the contributions of a Scheherazade of a concert-mistress. But what a pity he instructed his tam-tam player to cut off its sound at the end; Rachmaninov indicated that its doleful tones should be allowed to die away into nothingness.
Berlioz’s ‘Carnaval Romain’ Overture, fustian in itself, provided a vivid vehicle for the orchestra to display its credentials. If there is a finer orchestra in France I have yet to hear it.