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SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre; Cypres et Lauriers; Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, “Organ” – Vincent Warnier, organ/ Orch. National de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos Pure Audio Blu-ray

SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (trans. Warnier); Cypres et Lauriers, Op. 156; Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, “Organ” – Vincent Warnier, organ/ Orchestre National de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos Pure Audio Blu-ray 8.573331, 57:45 [5.0 DTS-HD surround & 2.0 stereo] (1/13/15) ****:

When we encounter the Saint-Saens 1886 Organ Symphony, we tend to consider the organ as the co-star in an orchestral spectacular. Vincent Warnier – the successor to Maurice Durufle at the Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-mont in Paris – and his mighty 1878 Cavaille-Coll/Gonzalez/Aubertin organ of the Lyon Auditorium reverse the poles, centering the instrument around which Saint-Saens builds his celestial sonorities.

The popular Danse Macabre began as a song from 1872, based on lyrics by Henri Cazalis. The inventive application of the Dies Irae became a symphonic poem in 1874, which the composer himself transcribed alternatively for violin and piano and for piano, four hands. Warnier now adapts the midnight revel to the stops and manuals of the organ, and the result proves striking. Besides the obvious oboe stop, the full orchestral sonority becomes available to the grand tuttis, and the sweetness of the legato portions of the melodic line must be savored to be believed.

The very instrument Warnier plies had been the sound model for the Saint-Saens 1920 Cypres et Lauriers, essentially a dirge in the form of a diptych, alternately for organ and full orchestra. Saint-Saens means to celebrate the Allied victory in the First World War. The opening bars contain the composer’s “African” or oriental flavor, typical of his Algerian affections.  The Cypresses section builds a strong pedal point and rising tension, concluding with a Vox humaine solo whose melodic contour easily raises shades of Wagner. The Laurels section exploits militant fanfares in highly layered fugatos colored by orchestral harps, the souls of the honored dead here transfigured into glory.

As we move to organ plus orchestra, Leonard Slatkin takes as lyrical an approach to the Organ Symphony as I have heard, certainly unwilling to rival Munch or Karajan for sheer bravura power. [The powerful Munch/BSO version is on a 3-channel RCA SACD and comes with both La Mer and Ports of Call – for only $10 originally…Ed.] If Slatkin’s reading reminds me of a prior musician’s vision, I would venture Jean Martinon. The D-flat Major Poco adagio proffers peace and love, not inflated heroics. A poised intimacy suffuses this movement, graduated into the splendid restatement of the chorale theme over delicate string pizzicatos. Besides the overt cyclicism of the next two movements – a testament to Saint-Saens’ declared admiration for Beethoven – the specter of the ubiquitous Dies Irae adds the element of mortality. Having kept his woodwinds in dynamic restraints throughout the Presto of the third movement, Slatkin sees the giant C Major chord from Warnier as a gateway to an ecstatically liquefied sound world dominated by organ, brass, and cymbals. The ensuing polyphony pays homage to both Liszt and Bach, rife with fervent pageantry. The recording (18-19 November 2013 and 7 February 2014) from producers Vincent Villetard and Etienne Pipard delivers a warm, glowing performance of tasteful enthusiasm. [Especially in hi-res DTS surround…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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