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