> Camille Saint-Saens - Complete Organ Works [PJL]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Complete Organ Works

CD1 [63.37]
Première Fantaisie in E flat major [5.55]
Benediction nuptiale, Op 9 (1859) [6.15]
Offertoire in E major [9.59]
Élévation ou Communion, Op13 (1858) [5.29]
O salutaris hostia [2.39]
Prélude in C major [2.15]
Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques Bretons, Op 7 [20.15]
Prédication aux oiseaux [10.55]
CD2 [51.27]
Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op 99 (1894) [27.54]
Prélude in F major [1.28]
Deux Versets [2.04]
Thème, Variations et Choral de Dies Irae [7.06]
Deuxième Fantaisie in D flat major, Op 101 (1895) [13.11]
CD3 [67.43]
Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op 109 (1898) [27.36]
Sept Improvisations (1917) [40.26]
CD4 [52.14]
Marche Religieuse, Op 107 (1897) [4.36]
Neuf Pièces pour Orgue ou Harmonium – Marche-Cortège;Interlude-fugue; Offertoire; Procession; Élévation; Offertoire (Sarabande); Ave verum; Offertoire; Élévation [24.04]
Prélude in C minor [3.01]
Troisième Fantaisie in C major, Op 157 (1919) [13.09]
Cyprés et Lauriers, Op 156 (1919) [7.33]
Stefan Johannes Bleicher (organ)
recorded 21-23 March 1995 (CDs 1/2/3 only) at the Johanneskirche, Schaffhausen; and 6/7 February 1995 (CD4 only) at the Stadtkirche, Winterthur - DDD
ARTE NOVA 74321 35088 2 [63.37+51.27+67.43+52.14]

For many listeners, the words ‘Saint-Saëns’ and ‘organ’ go together, on account of his (once seldom played, but now spectacularly popular) Symphony No 3 in C minor. Music-lovers who enjoy that fine piece and who are curious about the rest of the composer’s output will surely be tempted by this bargain-priced Arte Nova boxed set of everything Saint-Saëns wrote for the king of instruments. Similarly, collectors of organ music who already have recordings of the more familiar recital items, such as the Deuxième Fantaisie, but who want to put such pieces into a wider context, now have the opportunity to do exactly that, and at minimum outlay.

Hailed by Liszt as the world’s greatest organist, Saint-Saëns was a professional organist from the age of eighteen: in fact he held posts (at St Merry and the Madeleine in Paris) continuously until 1877. All of the music on the first CD of this collection dates from this early period. The remainder (i.e. the bulk) of Saint-Saëns’ organ music was written between 1894 and 1898 and, as an octogenarian, between 1917 and 1919. The sequence of these CDs being largely chronological, the fourth CD closes with Saint-Saëns’ very last music written for the instrument.

Dating much of this music is inevitably a problem: some was published several years after it was composed, especially the smaller occasional pieces, which (one imagines) were dashed off in typical haste, and left lying around the organ loft to gather dust. In fact the Neuf Pièces pour Orgue ou Harmonium on CD4 have been ‘assembled’ for the present recording, partly from the anthology L’Organiste, and partly from surviving manuscripts: hence my listing of the component items.

Although Vierne and Widor admired Saint-Saëns both as organist and composer, Saint-Saëns’ music is quite unlike that of his French contemporaries. With much more affinity (even stylistic affinity) to earlier models such as Bach and Mendelssohn than (say) Liszt or Wagner, Saint-Saëns’ music is as much classical as romantic. So you won’t find much that is darkly chromatic or complex here, nor much that is overtly personal or theatrical: it is in no way ‘difficult’, though there is a certain mystery and intimacy in the late music, which (in its way) poses questions for us. Strangely, much is pianistic (and in some cases orchestral) in character: but I suppose you could say the same of Liszt’s (or even Franck’s) organ music. However, undoubted craftsman that he was, it is not easy to allow one’s attention to be deflected, even in the least interesting music.

Many of the shorter pieces are slight, clearly originating as sketchy improvisations and of little lasting value, but some (for example, the restful Offertoire in E major, or the modal Seven Improvisations, written 60 years later) are memorable. The two collections of Préludes et Fugues contain some fine music, distinguished as they are by both invention and imagination: and the oft-recorded Deuxième Fantaisie (much more than its Première and Troisième cousins) is a disciplined and sophisticated piece, in terms of both texture and structure.

Saint-Saëns’ classicism is reflected, you might argue, in (unusually, for his time) his offering only general and occasional indications of registration: it also gives us good reason for playing his music on a variety of instruments, and not necessarily on the Cavaillé-Coll ‘standard’, such as that which Saint-Saëns played at the Madeleine. In the CD notes included with this issue, Stefan Johannes Bleicher reminds us that Saint-Saëns’ broad (or conservative?) stylistic horizons are reflected in his wide experience of ‘foreign’ organs, such as the Walcker organ at Winterthur (one of the instruments used in this recording) which Saint-Saëns himself played in 1896.

Bleicher, a former pupil of Lionel Rogg and Ewald Kooiman, was born in 1962: you can read all about him (in German) at http://www.stefanjohannesbleicher.de/. With numerous awards and 30 CDs already to his credit, including complete editions – also for Arte Nova – of Liszt (74321 59199 2) and Mendelssohn (74321 71179 2), I have to say he is a fine player. Registrations are invariably telling, in terms not only of colour but also of textural transparency. Although his fingerwork is polished, and his mastery of structure unquestionable, his expressive rubato sometimes sounds (to me) like a loose pulse, with detrimental effect on rhythmic clarity. But as a rule, these are authoritative and sympathetic performances.

The recording is beyond criticism: weighty but brilliant, resonant but detailed.

I know some collectors are less concerned than I about the quality of the notes provided with CDs. Bleicher himself writes those included here: his enthusiastic tone reflects his playing. They are perfectly adequate – largely anecdotal and simply descriptive rather than scholarly or analytical – but the translation and punctuation are truly appalling, to the point of being sometimes difficult to decipher. Fortunately, full specifications of both organs are provided.

Readers who want merely to dip into Saint-Saëns’ organ music (without necessarily wanting every note the composer wrote) may be interested in an alternative single-disc recital by Margaret Phillips (playing the organ of Exeter Cathedral) on York CD110, at full price. This offers all three Fantaisies, the Breton Rhapsodies and the second collection of Préludes et Fugues – in other words, much of the best and most substantial music, for a little less outlay than this four-disc collection. It’s hard to resist stating that such a programme makes for a more satisfying hour’s listening than any of these Arte Nova discs, containing as they do pieces of (frankly) variable worth.

If you really do want the complete Saint-Saëns organ music, this Arte Nova box can be safely (albeit conditionally) recommended.

Peter J Lawson

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