Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Prelude and Fugue in C-major Op. 109 No.3 (1898) [9:36]
Improvisation in A-major Op. 150 No.4 (1917) [3:45]
Improvisation “Feria Pentecostes’ Op. 150 No.2 (1917) [5:15]
Prelude and Fugue in G-major Op. 109 No.2 (1898) [6:16]
Verset in E-minor (1855?) [1:34]
Improvisation “Pro defunctis” Op. 150 No.6 (1917) [8:53]
Improvisation in E-flat major Op. 150 No. 3 (1917) [5:32]
Prelude in F-major (1855?) [1:46]
Verset in F-major (1855?) [1:13]
Prelude and Fugue in D-minor Op. 109 No. 1 (1898) [10:36]
Improvisation “Pro martyribus “ Op. 150 No. 5 (1917) [6:07]
Improvisation in E-major Op. 150 No.1 (1917) [10:58]
Improvisation in A-minor Op. 150 No. 7 (1917) [4:25]
Andrew-John Smith (organ)
rec. 26-28 May 2009, La Madeleine, Paris DDD
HYPERION CDA67815 [76:02]
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 of improvisation.
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” concerto.
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 Roth (see Bleicher review) is no longer available. Perhaps he will also include one of the chamber works with organ.
Andrew-John Smith’s second album of the organ music of Saint-Saëns is played authoritatively and with great enthusiasm. Showing a lesser-known side of this composer.