Zubin Mehta and Saint-Saëns in the Berlin Phil Digital Concert Hall

by Glenn on September 26, 2015

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3, Organ Symphony

I am reading through Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide and listening to the works he describes. Steinberg has picked 118 symphonies for his book. I’ve listened to 15 of them, which means I am about 13% of the way through this listening journey.

One of the questions I wish I could ask the late author is why these symphonies and not others? In his introduction, Steinberg explained that some of the decision-making was pretty obvious, the Beethovens, the Brahms, etc. But today I had an opportunity to watch and listen to the Symphony No. 3, “Organ Symphony,” by Camille Saint-Saëns as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta in their Digital Concert Hall.

I haven’t heard the Saint-Saëns for ages and now I’m wondering why it didn’t make it in?

It’s refined, elegant, and shimmery on the one hand and dramatic, powerful, and stirring on the other.

I think the obvious criticism is that there are few themes and they appear over and over so there isn’t a sense of overwhelming forward progress to an inexorable conclusion. But it is so colorful. And the organ, especially in the last movement, is absolutely thrilling. The BPO was incredible. Delicate and refined at one moment and overwhelming the next.

Aside: Someone somewhere must have created a chart that shows the effort required of an individual musician to create an amount of sound. One of the things about this symphony that makes me smile is the beginning of the final movement. The organist has all (or at least a lot) of the stops out and simply lowers his hands onto the keyboard. That simple act creates a huge sound. Then the 100 or so musicians of the orchestra play away to try and match the volume. One person can play over 100. Remarkable.

This was a great concert.

Before the intermission, The BPO played the Intermezzo from Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt and the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham.

It was fun to listen to the Schmidt after having listened to his Symphony No. 4 this summer. Interesting that both that recording and this concert were conducted by Mehta, who appears to be something of a Schmidt proponent. I’d like to hear the Intermezzo again, although it didn’t wow this first time. It definitely had an operatic vibe to it with some soaring themes. The BPO played it well, but I didn’t think all the string entrances were totally precise. It felt like this was a new work for the orchestra.

On the other hand, the Korngold was phenomenal. I’ve heard Gil Shaham play but never watched him. He is both unassuming and incredibly inspiring. His playing is flawless and makes the performance about his playing and not his personal showmanship. He comes across as completely unpretentious, full of warmth. It was fun to watch him engage with Mehta and members of the orchestra. As a soloist he postured like he was part of a chamber ensemble. His playing is liquid smooth. I think this is the second time I’ve heard the Korngold in recent memory. It’s really growing on me. I don’t know if this sounds like film music or film music sounds like Korngold, but I’m not sure it matters. The third movement is my favorite. Very charming—the spirit of Haydn using the tonality of post-World War 2 Hollywood.


The program notes for the concert say that Mehta’s first appearance with the BPO was back in 1961. That makes this a 54-year-long partnership between the 79-year-old conductor and this incredible orchestra. Among the many things I like about the BPO is that they are a meek orchestra. I use “meek” in the Biblical sense of “strength under control.” They play quietly and precisely and energetically, but when they uncork, it’s phenomenal.


[…] I thought I was remembering bits from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique but instead was recalling Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. The link between the two is that both use the Dies Irae. Here is a YouTube link to hear […]

by Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique | Symphony Study No. 21 of 118 « glennaustin.com on 6 December 2015 at 10:08 am. #

[…] regrets that no works by the sons of Bach, among the first symphonists, were included. Neither was  Symphony No. 3 “Organ” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a favorite of mine. I surmise that this collection is his estimation of the 118 best symphonies […]

by Sibelius’s 7 | Symphony Studies Nos. 22–28 « glennaustin.com on 4 May 2016 at 9:19 pm. #