Saint-Saëns was as well-known in his lifetime as an organist
as he was as composer, conductor and pianist. Indeed for much
of his life, his organ posts - including almost twenty years
at La Madeleine - accounted for an important part of his income.
Improvisation was a key element of the music in French religious
services and Saint-Saëns was second to none in this regard,
sometimes using material he had improvised at the organ in later,
permanent works. On this disc, the second Andrew-John Smith
has devoted to the organ works of Saint-Saëns, we have
a number of “finished” works that show the influence
The two Versets and the Prelude in F, although written down,
are early examples of the style Saint-Saëns would have
used in his improvisations for church services. They were originally
without titles and were only printed in 1991. The E-minor Verset
is solemn, but with wonderful opportunities for coloristic effects,
and Smith takes full advantage of them. The other Verset I found
less interesting, but the Prelude in F is very attractive and
seems almost too cheery for a church service.
The Op. 109 Preludes and Fugues date from more than forty years
later than the above and show how much the productions of Cavaillé-Coll
had changed French organ music from having a mostly ecclesiastical
function to appearing at least as frequently in the concert
hall. The first Prelude and Fugue is the most impressive, utilizing
the full possibilities of the “symphonic” organ.
Though the Prelude starts off slowly, it quickly becomes an
organ counterpart to his orchestral works. The Fugue demonstrates
the composer’s structural mastery and is of great contrapuntal
interest. The second work is much less grandiose than its predecessor
and occasionally recalls the works of Bach. The third Prelude
and Fugue is fast-paced and quite gripping, with the Fugue evolving
slowly, but organically, to an exciting conclusion.
The Op. 150 Improvisations date from the last few years of the
composer’s life. They may have been intended as example
of “how to improvise”. Three are based on plainchant
and the other four on original material. They vary from the
simplicity of No.4 to the symphonic proportions of No.1. The
second, based on the first hymn of Lauds for Pentecost, begins
gently, but grows into a massive statement of the plainchant
melody, while the third is a masterpiece of organ coloration.
Most interestingly, the theme of the last Improvisation has
more than a family resemblance to the last movement of the “Egyptian”
Although the underlying theme of this disc is improvisation,
Smith does not produce quite as much improvisatory excitement
as one would like. However, he is excellent in revealing the
contrapuntal and structural mastery that informs this music.
In addition, his use of the colors available on the organ at
the Madeleine is admirable. One must also mention his extensive
and informative notes. The organ of the Madeleine is well-known
and sounds wonderful here, although the fairly substantial delay
sometimes lends a slightly cavernous element to the overall
sound. One hopes that Smith will record further discs to complete
the organ music, especially as the magisterial 1982 set by Daniel
Bleicher review) is no longer available. Perhaps he will
also include one of the chamber works with organ.