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Reviews: Poulenc: Concerto for Organ etc - Gillian Weir

Reviews: 4

Review by April 2, 2004 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
It's always nice to find a neglected gem that turns out to be just what the cliche promises--a gem, and quite a substantial one at that! I'm talking about Barber's 16min Tocatta Festiva for Organ and Orchestra; the final offering on this exceptionally recorded disc. I heard this music for the first time last year when my orchestra performed it, and immediately after I picked up a performance on the Cedille label. A previous rarity on any medium, there are now two(!) available on SACD and one more coming on Naxos. The other performance on SACD is on the Audite Label entitled, "Touching Colors." How do the two stack up? I prefer Weir/Leppard on the above Linn. While Schmitt/Wildner on Audite might have a *slight* edge when it comes to rhythmic snap from the orchestra, (they have a very earnest percussion section); the organ is bass-shy and (at least) *I* found this disappointing throughout. In the very finale, the gong crescendo peaks before I'm ready. Before anyone's ready. Fatal I tell you. On the Linn, The conductor Leppard begins the proceedings a *touch* heavy-handed, (sample the rhetorical brass material about 5 bars in), but most of the performance could be described as spectacularly expansive, and with the bass generated by Weir's organ, it has to be--now we're talking! The orchestra material is expertly handled, weighty when it has to be and surprisingly impressionistic otherwise, revealing Barber's multi-faceted orchestration like no other I've heard.

If you like Poulenc's Organ Concerto, (I'm assuming most are quite familiar
with it), the Linn recording comes with another
substantial piece in a similar vein--the Pierre Petit
(1922-2000)"Concertino" for Organ, Strings, and Percussion. It has the same
tartness, catchy motivic tattoos, and idiosyncratic melodies as the
Poulenc, but not at all derivative. I liked it quite a bit, but it is the Barber that inspired the most rapture, and so the only piece I felt comfortable discussing in depth. (What of the fillers on the Audite SACD? I found the Saint Saens Organ Symphony to be *too* heavy-handed in the finale. Sure, the first three mov't are crisp and compelling, but if the finale deflates.… And then there's that bass-shy organ again. Zabel’s “Touching Colors” is typical wall-of-sound music—interesting but rather boneless for my tastes. Strauss’ Festive Entry of the Knights was surprisingly dull-- rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically foursquare. This from the composer of Electra?)

What doesn’t the Linn have going for it? I found it hard to get, without ordering from Europe. Yes, I’m being a whiny American, but hey, you’re getting my money! The cover-art, typical of many Classical CD covers, is exceedingly masculine, (ahem), causing any man, whatever his proclivities, to probably slide it under a magazine when the guys come over for football. Oh well, can’t satisfy everyone!

Technical notes: I listened to this SACD in two-channel. In surround, the organ is pumped out of the back speakers *only* so they will have to be full-range. Don't be disappointed in this respect.

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Review by mjw March 28, 2005 (5 of 7 found this review helpful)
This recording in mc strikes me as very odd. As mentioned the organ is behind you but the orchestra sounds incredibly distant in front of you, say a mile away. the balance seems much better as two channel or on the CD layer.

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Review by terence April 11, 2006 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics: makes an important point at the end of his review - most of the organ sound in the multichannel mix comes from the rears, so you really need speakers which closely match your front pair. if they're markedly smaller or inferior you'll not get the effect intended.

mjw finds the organ-in-rears mix odd, but as david hurwitz points out in his ecstatic review on the classics today website ( this might very well simply be an accurate rendition of the pipe/orchestral layout in the chapel setting used for the recording.

whatever - i find the effect very involving and convincing, enabling you to follow the orchestra/organ interaction very clearly. it's not unlike the kind of innovative work being done (partly on SACD, partly on DVD-A) by the german company TACET, who use the rear speakers much more boldly than any other company i've come across (i'd recommend you try one of their recordings e.g. the auryn quartet's ravel/debussy/fauré recital).

oh and by the way, the performance of the poulenc here is superb. and linn's engineering sets very high standards indeed of recorded sound in the multichannel format.

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Review by Oakland January 15, 2007 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
On the hi-rez forum jdaniel (see comments above) alerted us to the new Ondine SACD with the Philadelphia Orchestra to be released that features the Poulenc, Barber, as well as the Saint Saens Organ Symphony. So, I thought this was the perfect time to revisit the Linn SACD which I just completed listening to again.

I only discovered the Barber “Toccata Festiva” three years ago or so (when it was released as a supplement to the Poulenc “Organ Concerto” on Linn. The Toccata Festiva quickly became the mainstay for me on the disc. Perhaps because I have no basis for comparison I found it almost faultless and am anxious to hear another interpretation and another recording of it. As it is it probably rates among the top ten in my collection with respect to “slam” factor. I have yet to hear a recording that does the organ at speed complete justice (the closest is the Widor “Mass Op. 36” on JAV Recordings-see my comments elsewhere on but “Toccata Festiva” is still very satisfying from that standpoint.

But I most certainly anxiously await the Ondine Label release of the Barber work (as well as the Poulenc and the Saint Saens Organ Symphony) with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm sure that there are a million exceptions, but over the years I have found that even lesser known (or not known at all) US regional bands or orchestras can often (not always) perform works of American composers with a "better feel" than even the brand name orchestras from across the oceans. With American compositions the local orchestras can (should?) have an innate vernacular feel that often says, "I've lived it". Of course, I’m sure it works the other way around.

Pierre Petit's "Concertino" for Organ, Strings, and Percussion, like the Barber composition was also new to me. It is a very enjoyable piece, which like the other compositions on this disc strikes a skillful and harmonious balance between organ (that can overwhelm any orchestra) and the orchestra itself. The "Concertino" is fresh and lively (without sounding like a circus organ) and inventive, although not as resourceful as the other two compositions on this disc.

I am a lot more critical of the Linn Records Poulenc “Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Percussion”. Perhaps because I am so much more familiar with it and have heard it live (2 rehearsals and a concert at Davies Hall in San Francisco). Plus I have several recordings of it including the Telarc Michael Murray version, (who I am almost sure was the organist for the Poulenc and Saint Saens at Davies). Anyway, once you have heard the Poulenc Concerto in a live performance you will *never* forget its indelible impact.

I found the Linn (Gillian Weir, organist) performance/recording of the Poulenc Concerto to be above average but not special. I found the performance to be too “brisk” for what I’m familiar with and in the process it lost drive and impact throughout. In many cases if one interpretation is slower or faster than another interpretation of a particular work they both can still feel “right” to me, but not in this case. I have never really warmed to the Weir performance, even though I have given it ample opportunity.

The multi-channel/two-channel sound is beyond far as it goes. And that's the problem it does not go deep enough. But perhaps the coup de grâce for me was the organ came up short with respect to ultimate power down low. For example, the last 3 minutes or so of the Concerto includes, a somewhat faint but *very* deep organ passage which is sustained continuously for well over 90 seconds. Because it is sustained it is far easier to gauge than a transient that characterizes the low frequencies in most compositions. On the Telarc recording on several systems I have listened to it that specific passage in the Poulenc seemingly causes a change of barometric pressure in the room much like what I remember happened at the live performance of this concerto I attended. It feels like a small earthquake. But was really spooky was that it seemed that something or someone was sneaking up from behind you in the room (in two channel mind you). I think I once read where this sustained note (on the Telarc recording) was at 23 HZ. The feeling (hearing was not so much an issue) was absolutely missing from the Linn recording even though the organ came across very authentically in other areas. In the Linn recording that note should begin right about 19 minutes, 22 seconds into the Poulenc performance. It never happens.

And that brings to mind about another point. The orchestra for all recordings is the English Chamber Orchestra, but Raymond Leopard conducts my two favorites on this disc, the Barber and the Petit. David Hill conducts the Poulenc.

A couple of the other comments mentioned that in the multi-channel version that "most" of the organ sound comes from the rear channels. I can confirm that this is true for all the recordings here, but with clarification. Most of the "higher registers" of the organ come from the rear (as is intended in the compositions and not unlike you often encounter in the hall or church), but the other 3 channels play a significant role there also. It is important to note that the less audible, but visceral information below 40hz seems to come from the mains and from the center. But to be sure this is a 5-channel (full range) participatory production.

So, my misgivings about the Poulenc not withstanding, this is a wonderful recording. The engineering is superb. So often I have encountered recordings of this genre when the organ completely overwhelms the orchestra. Indeed, a pronounced criticism of the live performance of the Poulenc (and Saint Saens) that I heard in San Francisco was *exactly* that. But in these recordings, even though the organ is full range the strings and other instruments are superbly reproduced.

Highly recommended!

Robert C. Lang

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