Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Complete Organ Works - Volume 1
Cyprès et Lauriers, Op.156 No.1, Cyprès [7:51]
Cyprès et Lauriers, Op. 156 No.2, Lauriers [8:23]
Trois Prèlude et Fugues Op.99 No.1 in E Major [8:40]
Trois Prèlude et Fugues Op.99 No.2 in B Major [6:42]
Trois Prèlude et Fugues Op.99 No.3 in E-Flat Major [6:30]
Fantaisie in E-Flat Major R 78 [5:36]
Fantaisie No.3 in C Major Op.157 [12:56]
Simone Vebber (organ)
Rec. 2020, Sant’Allesandro Cathedral, Bergamo, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00388 [56:39]
The first thing an audiophile will notice about this CD is the sound. Right at the start of the first item there is a low pedal which, at least on my 7.2 surround system, was remarkably rich and resonant, giving the two subwoofers a real test. This is the kind of bass effect a long-serving critic of Gramophone once called “tummy-wobbling”, so if you are in the market for a sub-woofer, use this as a test track in the hi-fi store. But even on a two channel stereo system it was sonically effective throughout the frequency and dynamic range, with abundant colour, and good presence even when the playing is very quiet, and the bass never clouds the rest of the sound picture. Bergamo Cathedral has the right amount of reverberation for the repertoire and clearly has a fine instrument which also looks splendid (there is a colour photo in the booklet). Sonic drama in a splendid Duomo.
Saint-Saëns was a pianist and organist of international fame, especially admired for his playing and improvisation in the organ loft, a sort of Parisian Bruckner. The mid-nineteenth century in France was the age of organ building by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and Saint-Saëns’ organ music often reflects the splendour of those instruments.
Relatively little of his organ output comes from Saint-Saëns’ twenty years from 1857 as the organist at La Madeleine, so all but one of the works here was written much later. That imposing first item is one half of the title track, and Cyprès commemorates the fallen of the First World War (the cypress is the tree of the dead). Saint-Saëns was born two years after Brahms, outlived Debussy, and died when Britten was eight years old. He had seen France in revolution and at war, and this lament is a touching one. The second piece of Op.156, Lauriers, is named for the laurels earned by combatants, and was originally for organ and orchestra. This transcription for organ solo was made by Somine Vebber himself, and does not sound like a transcription at any point. It is an ideal foil to its companion piece, being more celebratory both in conception and in this stirring performance. Vebber impresses throughout with both his technique and his sense of style.
Saint-Saëns was a very early and lifelong enthusiast for Bach, so it is no surprise that when writing his Op.99, to be dedicated to three of his contemporary French organists, he planned three Preludes and Fugues. The first (dedicated to Widor) deploys the Bachian device of deriving the fugue subject from the prelude, while the second is more clearly from the Romantic age, melodically and texturally. The prelude of number three is a dazzling toccata, another Bachian echo, skilfully played, and the imposing fugue subject leads into a movement of cumulative power.
By far the earliest piece on this CD, the Fantasie in E-Flat Major, was the composer’s first organ publication, quickly became established in the instrument’s repertoire, and is still Saint-Saëns’ best known organ work, according to the valuable booklet note by Chiara Bertolgio. It seems to me though to be the least impressive item here, surpassed by its successors. In particular the Fantaisie No.3 in C Major Op.157 proceeds in a way that justifies the title of ‘a fantasy’ rather better, music which perhaps captures something of the composer’s famous improvisations. At nearly thirteen minutes it is the longest single movement on the disc, and the most inventive.
This is the first in a “complete organ works of Saint-Saëns” collection from Da Vinci, who don’t say if its successor will involve the same Italian player and Italian instrument. Perhaps they will seek out a Cavaillé-Coll organ and a French player. But it is be hoped that we will have more of Simone Vebber and the Bergamo instrument, since both are superb, and very well recorded.
Saint-Saëns is undergoing something of a revival perhaps, or at least an exploration of his very wide range of genres, beyond the familiar handful of orchestral works. Thus the Bru Zane label has now issued four of his operas, none of which is Samson et Dalila. His songs and chamber music are becoming better known, and now we can explore his organ music. If, like me, you knew none of it before, this CD is a good place to start.