SAINT-SAENS Organ Works Vol. 3: Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques Bretons, Op. 7; Dies Irae; O salutaris hostia; Sarabande; Elevation ou Communion, Op. 13; Fantasie pour orgue-Aeolian – Andrew-John Smith, organ/ Adrian Bending, tubular bells (Fantasie) – Hyperion CDA67922, 62:47 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
The third in organist Smith’s traversal of the Saint-Saens oeuvre, these inscriptions derive from sessions (May 2009 and June 2011) at the Organ of La Madeleine, Paris, Saint-Saens’ original haunt. Smith opens with Three Rhapsodies on Songs of Brittany (1866), with No. 2 in D Major first. Based on a Breton Noel, the chromatic line assumes a national air, with deep growls in the pedaled bass line. When we recall Saint-Saens’ special friendship with Gabriel Faure, the harmonic audacities and passing modal dissonances seem less strange. It was on a boat trio to Sainte-Anne-La Paud that Saint-Saens purportedly heard “rustic sounds on an oboe” that suggested the Rhapsodies to him. No. 1 in E Major often sounds tailor-made for the harmonium, an instrument for which Saint-Saens was among the first to address his transcriptions. The middle section of the E Major has an other-worldly affect we might ascribe to Cesar Franck. The third vacillates between A Minor and F Major, the latter section, a musette, pays debts to Daquin. The opening tune resembles the “four and twenty blackbirds” of our youth.
Saint-Saens, like Liszt and Rachmaninov, found the liturgical sequence Dies Irae compelling, as we know from his Danse macabre. This version on seven staves in manuscript, discovered in 1991, remains unfinished; the educated guess places it as composed c. 1859. The melodic line moves through the organ’s diapason in snake-like chromatics, a natural accompaniment for a Tod Browning silent film. It opens like Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variation but then the texture thickens for the undeniable plain chant. The miniature O salutaris hostia (1904) borrows from Saint-Saens’ early Mass, Op. 4. The piece enjoys a clear-voiced pageantry quite irresistible, as it is when set for sopranos and organ in his Mass. The 1863 Sarabande exists in several versions, both for orchestra and for organ or harmonium. In D Major, the stately, somber piece (in this 1890 incarnation) can serve as an offertory, one its aliases. The Elevation ou Communion in E Major (1856) strikes a particularly meditative note, likely meant to serve in a motet. The austere and illumined atmosphere suggests a scene with the Gish sisters in hallowed lighting. The organ’s woodwind choirs eventually give way to a grand descending line which soon melts into a most liquid space that celebrates the flute stop. Knowing full well the effect of this inspired piece, Saint-Saens set it for piano solo in 1886.
The Aeolian Organ & Music Company, formed in New York (1888) built the first modern reproducing pipe organ; they added an automated player mechanism to an instrument designed by Ferrand & Votey of Detroit. The instrument shipped to London for the opening of Aeolian Hall in 1904, and Saint-Saens may well have visited the Hall in 1906, admiring its ten-stop Echo division, vox humana, and the tubular bells that constituted its chimes. He composed his Fantasie pour orgue-Aeolian in London, delivering the finished manuscript to Frank Taft, Director of the Aeolian Company, who published the piece in 1906. It was in 1988 that Rollin Smith, utilizing Saint-Saens’ first draft and the perforated rolls of the Aeolian Company, reconstructed the score for practical use. The work wants to transcend the limits of a human performer to embrace the mechanical possibilities of the Aeolian device. Saint-Saens himself pronounced the piece “unplayable by the fingers and feet.” The fluent work opens with a three-part introduction and four variations. The right hand imitates the flow of the harp, an effect the Aeolian Hall organ received first in 1909, involving the striking of tuned metal bars. A third theme appears in concert with the second motif, and they move in variation to the finale, a stretto of all three themes, and now the chimes enter in “great clanging orchestral bells pealing in dialogue with the full organ,” to quote the composer. Rarely has La Madeleine’s organ reverberated with such dedication to a composer’s singular vision. Kudos to executive producers Nick Flower and Simon Perry for their audacious musical contribution, the Fantasie’s first recording.
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