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Perhaps history has misted over the pathway to a true understanding of Camille Saint-Saëns.
To most of us, now, he is but a composer. In his day, however, he was so much more. Indeed, so much more that even his contemporaries found him hard to categorise. Liszt, for example, once called him ‘the greatest organist in the world’, but Saint-Saëns himself knew this side of him had to compete with the conducting, composing, mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. Whatever the subject, it seemed that Saint-Saëns was an expert at it.
His Symphony No. 3 is probably best understood as a ‘Symphony with added organ’, because only two of its four movements feature the instrument. it’s a magnificent work, with the composer saying he was writing to his limits: ‘I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have accomplished here, I will never achieve again.’ Strong stuff, but you can see what he means. The Royal Philharmonic Society, here in the UK, commissioned the work and Saint-Saëns came over to conduct its premiere at the old St James’s Hall (now the site of the Le Meridien Hotel, in London’s Piccadilly).
Michael Matthes (organ); Bastille Opera Orchestra; Myung-Whun Chung (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon: 4358542.