SAINT-SAENS: Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 3; Fantasie, Op. 101; Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 1; Cypres; Fantasie No. 3; Marche religieuse; Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 2; Benediction nuptiale; Fantasie (1857) – Andrew-John Smith, organ – Hyperion

by | Jul 15, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SAINT-SAENS: Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 3; Fantasie, Op. 101; Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 1; Cypres, Op. 156a; Fantasie No. 3, Op. 157; Marche religieuse, Op. 107; Prelude et Fugue, Op. 99, No. 2; Benediction nuptiale, Op. 9; Fantasie (1857) – Organ of La Madeleine, Paris/Andrew-John Smith, organist – Hyperion CDA67713, 78:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Recorded 21-22 September 2004, these selected organ works testify to a conscious anachronism on the part of the composer, dedicated as he was to formalism in music and a mix of progressive and antique coloration that took in the music of Bach and Liszt at once.

Saint-Saens’ position as organist of the Madeleine gave him access to a four manual, forty-eight stop instrument that could erupt with considerable power. Favoring a nasal yet symphonic sound, Saint-Saens created works in severe, often chaste style, careful to individualize his colors in fugues so that each voice could articulate clearly. His lyrical economy can be heard with mellow sweetness in the first of the Op. 99 Preludes and Fugues (1894), whose model is obviously J.S. Bach. The third of the Op. 99 enjoys all the virtuosity of a toccata. The No. 2 has a beauty that emerges from its opening salon materials, a subdued, jaunty excursion. Virility without sentimentality often proved Saint-Saens’ aesthetic dictum–an approach favored by no less than Chopin– and even the D-flat Fantasie, Op. 101 (1895) reveals a strict adherence to ternary and sonata-form, a trait this composer’s “romanticism” shares with the other arch-classicist, Brahms.

An unusual piece is the 1919 Cypres, a haunted, funereal work that pays homage to the devastation of WW I. The Cypres is the first of a two-section work that ends with a Lauriers for organ and orchestra. The bleak harmonies take in Bach, Franck, Roussel, Widor, and the modalities favored by anyone influenced by Bruckner. The oboe stop figures prominently; and we recall that late Saint-Saens opera are dedicated to woodwind sonatas of particular grace and facility. The incremental style of the huge Fantasie No. 3, too, produces a liturgical effect, perhaps more in common with medieval and early Renaissance style than the modernist tendencies available in 1919, as found in Schoenberg, late Debussy, and Varese. The use of the vox humana effects some otherworldly, oddly arresting sensations, in the upward scales over a morbid base-line. Andrew-John Smith affords the simple, plainchant melodies an aura of devotion, of great secular melancholy. A festive element breaks out–although the angular harmonies might suggest Poulenc’s ironies–then it plummets into lachrymose mediation once more. 

The Op. 107 Marche religieuse (1897) proffers a sense of special occasion, written as it was for Queen Marie Christine of Spain. The colors mount along the positif, the bass line grumbling then shimmering with pedal, which Saint-Saens used to effect through his toes rather than with his heels. The cumulative sonority basks in heraldry, easily comparable to a Bach peroration, what proud performers of the instrument call the voix celeste. The Op. 9 Benediction nuptiale (1859) Saint-Saens composed specifically for the Madeleine organ. Horns and flutes are the order of the day, and they proceed in a rare combination of structure and improvisation, the legato moments reminiscent of late Beethoven piano sonatas and a touch of Schumann. The first shall be last: the E-flat Fantasia which concludes the program was Saint-Saens first published organ piece, 1857.  In two sections, it begins with a bass pattern upon which some might support a passacaglia. It proceeds step-wise, colorfully in antiphons; then the music becomes epically spacious, reverberant and assertive in contrapuntal and heraldic regalia. Curiously – without an opus number – it among all of Saint-Saens’ organ efforts receives the most consistent attention in the concert programs of aficianados and practitioners.

–Gary Lemco


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