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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Danse macabre, Op. 40, arr, for organ by Edwin Lemare, rev. Vincent Warnier (1872/1919/2004) [8:35]
Cyprès et Lauriers, Op. 156 (1919) [13:48]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 87 ‘Organ’ (1886) [35:25]
Vincent Warnier (organ)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. November 2013, February 2014, Auditorium de Lyon, France
24-bit, 96 kHz. 5.1 Surround – DTS-HD Master Audio; 2.0 Stereo - PCM
NAXOS NBD0045 BD-A [57:48]

I mean no disrespect to the performers, but in many ways the star of this particular show is the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Auditorium Maurice Ravel de Lyon. From what I read in the booklet you could say that it’s been around a bit. It was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and installed in the concert hall of the Palais de Trocadéro as part of the Paris Expo of 1878. When the Palais de Trocadéro was demolished and replaced by the Palais de Chaillot the organ was reconstructed there in 1939 by Victor Gonzalez. In 1977 it was relocated to its present home in Lyon where it was completely restored “to all its former eloquent glory” in 2013 by Michel Gaillard of the Aubertin company.

It’s a mighty beast with four manuals, 82 stops and 6500 pipes. You can read more about the instrument itself, including a full specification, here. I think I’m right in saying that this is the only organ installed in a major French concert hall, which is rather a surprise.

The programme shows off the instrument pretty well. The arrangement of Danse macabre was made in 1919 by the English organist Edwin Lemare (1865-1934). What we hear on this recording is a re-working by Vincent Warnier. I particularly enjoyed the ear-tickling use of reeds. Warnier uses very inventive registrations to produce a wide range of instrumental colourings. His is a virtuoso account and it’s great fun.

Cyprès et Lauriers (‘Cypresses and Laurels’) was completely new to me. It’s a diptych, written in 1919. The first movement, Cyprès is an organ solo, deliberately written as such so that it could be played at funerals, apparently. It’s a fairly elaborate lament which becomes increasingly urgent in tone until two huge and rather strange chords are played after which the music gradually dies away to nothing. Lauriers involves the orchestra as well and is a tribute to the Allied victory in the Great War. There’s a rather jolly, jaunty tune in the second half of the piece and the ending is somewhat bombastic. Cyprès et Lauriers strikes me as a pièce d’occasion and very much of its time. I can’t say I was greatly taken with it but it’s interesting to hear it.

I readily confess to having a soft spot for Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony. It’s a bit of an indulgence, perhaps, but I like the piece. We’re not exactly short of recordings – there are sixteen listed in the MusicWeb International Masterwork index and there are a good many more that we have not reviewed. My own favourite versions are the 1959 Charles Munch performance (review) and the 1986 Berlin Philharmonic version conducted by James Levine for DG. I think I’m right in saying, however, that this new Naxos recording is so far the only BD-A version.

Since it is, for now, the only recording in the BD-A field I’m pleased to be able to report that it’s a good performance. The first movement is nice and breezy in Slatkin’s hands and the orchestral playing is alert. The movement links into the Poco adagio where the strings sound rich and full in the opening melody. This movement is a delicious confection; perhaps you need a slightly sweet tooth to enjoy it but I’m happy to own up to a fondness for it. It’s very well done here and particularly pleasing is the nice, lush blend of organ and orchestra.

There’s dash and vitality on display in the third movement while the mercurial trio is delightfully done. The atmospheric transition to the finale is well managed and the movement itself is announced commandingly by Vincent Warnier at the organ console. The first appearance of the main theme ripples along and then it is re-stated majestically with resplendent contributions from the organ and the brass section. Slatkin and his players give a spirited and impressive account of the finale; the ending is exciting and suitably grand.

This is an enjoyable and well executed programme. Naxos present it well: the booklet contains a good note, in French and English, by Claire Delamarche. The sound is pretty good too. On my equipment there was a good depth and perspective to the sound. In the works involving full forces the organ is integrated well with the orchestra, enriching the texture very nicely in the slow movement of the symphony and, in the finale of that work, occupying its rightful position of prominence.

Some may raise an eyebrow at the short playing time but if you can live with that then this release is an attractive proposition.

John Quinn