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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Complete Organ Works
Ben van Oosten (organ)
rec. Cavaillé-Coll Organ, Église de la Madeleine, Paris, May 2012
Track-listing below review
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 316 1767-2 [3 CDs: 57:12 + 56:23 + 52:34]

When you are looking for a ‘complete works’ of anything you want a consistent, high quality guide through works which may or may not be favourites, may have discoveries or works which belong in a lower category of artistic function, but which all provide a reliable sense of optimum satisfaction. Michael Cookson admired this collection greatly (see review), and I concur very much with his conclusions.
 
If we’re talking reliable guides, then the MDG label has a rich resource in Ben van Oosten, who has worked his way through most of the romantic organ repertoire from Dupré to Widor and Guilmant to Vierne, all of which are very well performed and recorded. This Saint-Saëns set is made that bit more special through being performed on an instrument that he would have known very well, having been organist at the Église de la Madeleine, and part of a succession which includes Lefébure-Wély and Fauré. The sound is rich and atmospheric, with plenty of juicy bass, gorgeous contrasts of colour and texture and enough detail to communicate the music without sounding overly close and artificial.
 
Pick almost any piece from this set and you will be rewarded with Saint-Saëns’s remarkable facility as a composer met by a highly sympathetic interpreter. Pretty much at random, the Fantaisie Op. 101 is a lovely example of lyrically flowing, almost pastoral lines and intriguing contrasts, plus that ever-evolving harmonic world which always keeps you on your toes. The following Op. 157 is another fascinating musical essay, a late piece which inspires through its supreme development of simple ideas. The works are described chronologically in the very fully documented booklet, while the pieces as performed are chosen as nicely structured recitals per disc. This has you leafing through the booklet on occasion, but a quick glance at the opus numbers soon removes any problems.
 
CD 2 has the two sets of Préludes et Fugues which are deliciously contrasting pieces, Saint-Saëns relishing the ‘pure’ musical challenge of meeting J.S. Bach’s model in his own idiom. Each of the six pairs is dedicated to a fellow organist. Have a listen to the Prélude et Fugue Op. 99 nr. 3; which was one of the composer’s own favourites. The blistering Prélude has something of Widor’s famous Toccata, and the fugue which follows equals this in exuberance. If the remarkable opening of the Op. 109 set doesn’t have you scurrying for the checkout counter with this box clutched in your hand then I’m afraid you’re a trickier customer than we bargained for. If nothing else, the context is stunning, making this disc and the entire set an all-round winner.
 
CD 3 has the at times amazing late Sept Improvisations, which seem to reflect the subdued spell which must have held Europe as war raged in 1916. Even the more lively pieces have a sense of translucent restraint, and only the final march has a feeling of defiance and hope drawn from the spirit of the past. Cyprès Op. 156 has a moody atmosphere, with intriguing harmonic stresses and wide dynamic contrasts which make it seem more monumental than its under eight minute span would seem to imply. The final piece, Élévation ou Communion is a nice one on which to end, with its reflective and gently meditative quality easing us calmly back into real life.
 
There are few enough Saint-Saëns organ recordings around and precious few complete sets, perhaps the best known being a well-regarded one on the Arte Nova label played by Stefan Johannes Bleicher (see review), which is now available in a reissued 4 CD box set. I’ve had a listen to a few tracks on this online, and while this isn’t really a fair comparison the Arte Nova sound is certainly rounder and less Francophile than the MDG version. I could no doubt live happily with Bleicher’s performances, but don’t prefer them to van Oosten’s. This is impressive and delightful in its own right, and as a complete set from one of the great names of French music this is going to be hard to beat.
 
Dominy Clements  

see also review by Michael Cookson

Track-Listing
CD 1
Marche réligieuse, Op. 107 (1897) [5:14]
Trois Rhapsodies sur des Cantiques bretons, Op. 7 (1866)
No. 1 in E major [5:35]
No. 2 in major [6:36]
No. 3 in A minor [8:20]
Fantaisie in E flat major, without opus number (1857) [5:50]
Fantaisie in D flat major, Op. 101 (1895) [12:04]
Fantaisie in C major, Op. 157 (1919) [12:54]

CD 2
Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op. 99 (1894)
No. 1 in E major [9:51]
No. 2 in B major [8:03]
No. 3 in E flat major [7:16]
Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op. 109 (1898)
No. 1 in D minor [9:37]
No. 2 in G major [5:39]
No. 3 in C major [8:57]
Bénédiction nuptiale in F major, Op. 9 (1859) [6:24]

CD 3
Sept Improvisations, Op. 150 (1916/17) [38:58]
Cyprès No. 1 from set of Cyprès et Lauriers, Op. 156 (1919) [7:48]
Élévation ou Communion in E major, Op. 13 (c. 1856) [5:39] 


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