Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2005 and the recording is still available.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Organ Music
Prélude and Fugue in Eb major Op.99, No.3 (1894)
Three Rhapsodies on Breton Melodies Op.7 No.3 (1866)
Seven Improvisations Op.150 (1916)
Adagio from the 3rd Symphony (transcribed by Emile Bernard, 1871)
Fantasie in Eb Major (1857)
Robert Delcamp (organ)
rec. 2003, Stahlhuth/Jann organ, Saint-Martin, Dudelange, Luxembourg
Naxos 8.557285 [77]

It is one of the strange facts of musical life that one of the most popular composers is actually known for comparatively few works. A brief study of the Arkiv Music website reveals some interesting facts. First of all there are some 945 recordings of works by our composer. Great! But break this down a little further and we see the problem. Over a hundred of these are devoted to the beautiful but perhaps all too well-known aria from Samson et Dalila, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix.’ There are nearly two hundred renditions of The Swan in the catalogue along with fifty versions of the Carnival of the Animals. Organ enthusiasts are blessed with forty-four recordings of the Organ Symphony. As for the rest of the composer’s vast opus list it is a case of pot luck. There are a few recordings of the Piano Trios and a selection of the sonatas. As for the First Symphony there is one version and for the Second there is two!

Now I am not going to put a value on the above statistics. Suffice to say that of all the music of Saint-Saëns, it is the piano trios that have always impressed me most.

When we turn to the organ music we are in almost uncharted territory. I have heard a few works given at recitals over the last third of a century and have even played one or two myself. However, unlike the works of Franck, Widor or Guilmant they do not seem to hold their place in the repertoire. And that, as you can all guess I am about to reflect, is a pity. However the present disc does much to present these forgotten works in an exciting and interesting light.

Saint-Saëns’ very first published organ work is also his most performed. The Fantasie in Eb was first heard in 1857 at the Church of Saint-Merry in Paris. This is a deservedly popular work – in fact it seems almost to transcend time. It does not appear to be ‘stuck’ in any particular style of its day; if anything it looks forward to the works of Vierne and Widor. It is perhaps unusual for its time in that the opening filigree passage is written for alternate chords played on two manuals. The second section of the Fantasie is a great march that would make an attractive alternative to certain more popular choices at weddings.

Little need be said about the transcription by Emile Bernard of the gorgeous Adagio from the Organ Symphony. The difficulty in such a piece as this is combining the orchestral parts with the solo instrument. However, Bernard has taken this music in hand and has produced a seamless work that stands as a recital piece in its own right. It is fair to add that Saint-Saëns himself was well known for re-arranging many of his works for a variety of instrumental resources.

The CD opens with what is perhaps one of the composer’s greatest organ works – the Prélude et Fugue in Eb major. This was one of a set of three works in this form written in the summer of 1894 – each dedicated to a contemporary organist. The third was presented to Eugene Gigout. The opening prelude is written in the ‘broken chord supported by slow pedal bass’ style that was to become extremely popular in French organ music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, culminating in the great Toccatas of Vierne and Widor. The music is self-propelling and eventually comes to a close in two powerful chords. The fugue owes something to Mendelssohn. It is written in ‘waltz’ time; however it achieves a wonderful balance between an academic fugue and a genuine work of art. And that is a great compliment to anyone who has ever tried to write a fugue!

The excellent programme notes tells us how the composer went on holiday to Brittany with a number of friends. Amongst these friends was his erstwhile pupil, Gabriel Fauré. During the trip Saint-Saëns did more than sight-see. He wrote the Three Rhapsodies on Breton Mélodies Op.7 and subsequently dedicated them to his pupil. The third ‘mélodie’ given here is in arch-form beginning quietly and slowly but steadily building to a great climax before subsiding to a thoughtful close.

Perhaps the most impressive and certainly the most innovative work on this CD is the Seven Improvisations Op.150. Apparently they were written in the sickbed whilst the composer was suffering from bronchitis. They are late works, written only a few years before his death. One of the interesting things about these pieces is the subtle use of Gregorian chant. These Improvisations need to be worked at a little – they are not immediately approachable. However they do give the lie to the view that Saint-Saëns was somehow stuck in a stylistic rut. There is engagement here with the contemporary trends in European music.

All of these works owe much to the classical and romantic background to the composer’s career. He was born when Mendelssohn was 26 years old and Chopin had reached his 25th birthday. He died at a time of great change in musical taste in 1921. So his career spans a huge range of musical history. The works on this CD span this era and reflect the composer’s response to the musical events of the day. However it is important to realise that in some of these pieces he leads the way. Perhaps the early Fantasie foreshadows much that was to follow in the succeeding half century.

Of course the sound on this CD is excellent, the playing by Robert Delcamp is totally sympathetic and the organ of Saint-Martin, Dudelange is impressive to say the least.

This is a fine introduction to the organ music of one of France’s great composers.

John France

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