The present album is the second of two recorded by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège and Jean-Jacques Kantorow to commemorate the centenary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. On the first instalment the team offered us ‘deeply impressive performances in stunning sound’ (theclassicreview.com) of the composer’s first and second symphonies and the unnumbered Symphony in A major, but now the time has come for Saint-Saëns’ crowning glory in the symphonic genre: his Symphony No. 3 in C minor, generally known &&&as the ‘Organ Symphony’. The work was composed in 1886, and Saint-Saëns had planned to dedicate it to Liszt but the latter’s death the same year caused the dedication in the published score to be modified to ‘in memory of Franz Liszt’. It is written for a larger orchestra than his previous symphonies, with the unusual addition of a piano and an organ – the two instruments that Liszt (and Saint-Saëns himself) favoured. Without being a virtuoso vehicle, the organ part is central to the work – especially in the grandiose ending – and it is here performed by the renowned organist Thierry Escaich, playing the great organ of Liège’s Salle Philharmonique.
On the disc, the symphony is preceded by the ‘Urbs Roma’ symphony, composed in 1856 by a 21-year-old Saint-Saëns. It was written for a competition, and its title – ‘the city of Rome’ – was one of the subjects prescribed by the organisers. In the absence of an explanation by the composer, it is unclear how the music relates to the subject. Another enigma is why Saint-Saëns omitted the symphony from his catalogue of works, even though it actually won him a first prize. In consequence, ‘Urbs Roma’ remained unpublished until 1974 and is rarely heard even today.