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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) [8:25]
Cyprès et Lauriers, for organ and orchestra, Op. 156 (1919) [13:44]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 Organ (1886) [35:36]
Vincent Warnier (organ)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2013/14 Auditorium de Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.573331 [57:45]

When Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, Mendelssohn’s Elijah had still to be written. When he died in Algiers in 1921 Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was already eight years old. From an early age Camille Saint-Saëns composed prolifically and seemingly without effort. He once said. “I produce music like an apple tree produces apples.” Throughout his long life of eighty-six years he wrote in most genres including thirteen operas but Samson et Dalila is the only one to have cemented a place in the repertory. There are a considerable number of recordings of his works in the catalogues - not the operas bar Samson et Dalila - but in the concert hall he remains one of those composers whose fame rests largely on just a small number of works. Most notably these include the Symphony No. 3Organ’, Danse macabre and The Carnival of the Animals two of which can be found on this Naxos issue.

The release marks the inauguration of the recently restored Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Auditorium de Lyon. It's a colossal instrument with four manuals, 82 stops and 6500 pipes and can be heard in all three of these Saint-Saëns works. As part of the 1878 Paris Expo the Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ was built for the concert hall at the Palais du Trocadéro. In 1939 it was reconstructed in the Palais de Chaillot, Paris by Victor and Fernand Gonzalez then relocated to the Auditorium de Lyon in 1977 by Georges Danion. It was restored in 2013 by Michel Gaillard of the Aubertin company.

The symphonic poem Danse macabre was written in 1874 based on a Henri Cazalis poem. It recounts the French folk-tale that on Halloween night, skeletons rise from their graves and dance to a violin which represents death. The xylophone imitates the rattling of bones. Here the Danse macabre is presented in a 1919 arrangement for solo organ prepared by Edwin Lemare. It was revised in 2004 by organist Vincent Warnier. Disappointingly Warnier’s performance feels a touch sluggish and curiously jerky. It's striking how much colour has been lost from this normally sparkling orchestral score by using the solo organ.

Composed in 1919 Cyprès et Lauriers (Cypresses and Laurels) for organ and orchestra is a relatively little known score rarely played in the concert hall. Although a commission from the Concerts d’Ostende to celebrate the Allied victory in World War One, Saint-Saëns had in mind for the première the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Trocadéro. It was eventually premièred in Ostend in 1920. Marked Poco adagio the dirge-like opening Cyprès for solo organ feels nondescript. Matters improve slightly with Lauriers, an Allegro non troppo which has some pleasant writing for both organ and orchestra. Best of all in Lauriers are the striking trumpet fanfares in the opening and closing sections. I have never been especially enamoured of Cyprès et Lauriers and there is little in this performance to change my mind.

The main work here, the Symphony No. 3Organ’ was a commission written in 1886 for the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. It was Saint-Saëns who conducted the première in London at the St James’s Hall. Especially admired for its glorious themes this score while containing some novel features could never be classed as groundbreaking. Although cast in two parts it comprises four conventional movements. There is a connection to Liszt as Saint-Saëns dedicated the score to the memory of the Hungarian composer who had died in the year of its completion. Saint-Saëns wrote about his ‘OrganSymphony, “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have accomplished here, I will never achieve again.” Although a frequent visitor to the recording studio curiously the ‘OrganSymphony is not played anywhere near as often as its quality deserves. This is a work I have long admired and I recall an especially memorable performance in 2011 in the Philharmonie, Berlin given by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Leo Hussain with organ soloist Cameron Carpenter. Under Leonard Slatkin the opening movement marked Adagio – Allegro moderato feels rather too slow-burning for my taste. Matters improve in the Poco adagio with the dialogue between the organ and the strings so delightfully reflective. Conversely the skittering Scherzo is afforded ample amounts of engaging vitality. There is plenty to savour in the celebrated Finale: Maestoso – Allegro when Warnier and the Cavaillé-Coll erupt jubilantly into life, creating and sustaining a flood of vivid colour.

This is a satisfactory account of the ‘OrganSymphony although there are two prime recordings that I will continue to reach for before any others. Top of the pile is the thrilling 1959 Boston account with its remarkable sonics conducted by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra with organ soloist Berj Zamkochian. That can be had on an RCA Living Stereo SACD. I savour the passionately romantic account recorded live as recently as March 2014 at Royal Festival Hall, London from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin featuring organist James O’Donnell. In addition I also admire the 1976 Medinah Temple, Chicago (organ at Chartres Cathedral) account from Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with organist Gaston Litaize on Deutsche Grammophon. Also worthy of attention is the 1986 Berlin account from the Berliner Philharmoniker under James Levine and Simon Preston on Deutsche Grammophon.

This Naxos release has reasonable sonics without being outstanding. In the symphony the organ sounds slightly recessed in comparison to the orchestra. At a measly fifty-seven minutes the short measure is irritating, especially as Naxos is no longer super-budget. Overall this is an agreeable release that promised a lot more than it delivered, not forgetting that the competition in the Organ Symphony is extremely fierce.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Leslie Wright ~ John Quinn (BD-A)