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CD Review

Camille Saint-Saëns

  • Danse Macabre, Op. 40
  • Cypres et lauriers, Op. 156 *
  • Symphony #3 in C Minor, Op. 78, "Organ" *
* Vincent Warnier, organ
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.573331 57:45
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Also available on Blu-ray Audio NBD0045:
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In many ways this disc is a real surprise: the Danse Macabre, arranged for solo organ, and Cyprès et Lauriers, for organ and orchestra, work especially well here, thus making these fillers quite a bonus to Slatkin's excellent version of the popular Organ Symphony. As I listened to the Danse Macabre it initially struck me as a quaint, oddly conceived arrangement that wouldn't add any new dimension to this piece, which of course was written for orchestra. (Actually, the orchestral version, from 1874, is an adaptation of an 1872 Saint-Saëns song of the same title.) But the organ, with its many stops and effects, brilliantly catches the spooky elements in this colorful piece. True, it won't supplant the orchestral version, but it is worth a listen, especially to fanciers of organ music. Vincent Warnier offers a splendid take on this work, pointing up its subtleties as well as its more colorful and virtuosic features. He employs his own revision of an arrangement by Edwin Lemare.

Cyprès et Lauriers is an interesting work lasting nearly fourteen minutes, but not on the level of the Third Symphony or many other major Saint-Saëns works. The first of the two movements is for solo organ, and it imparts a somber character overall. The second panel features orchestra and organ sharing the spotlight in more colorful and energetic (though sometimes bombastic) music. In both movements organist Vincent Warnier once again performs brilliantly and Slatkin draws fine playing from his Lyon ensemble. As is the case with the other two compositions on this disc, the organ used in the recording is the famous Paris Trocadero, built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. It has been restored twice and was moved to Lyon in 1977.

While the other two works will have interest for many, it is the Symphony #3, of course, that is the major selling point. Slatkin draws a very precisely played, very rhythmically alive and quite spirited performance from the Lyon players. The work here brims with atmosphere in the somber slow introduction and in the nervous drive and tension that permeate much of the first section. The second half of the first movement, which could almost be regarded as the second movement, features a main theme that is lushly played here but not taken too slowly by Slatkin, as some conductors are tempted to do. The organ blends nicely – not overwhelmingly, thankfully – into the sound field.

In the Scherzo or the first half of the second movement (let's call it part three of the symphony) Slatkin draws out just the right measure of energy and menace from the Lyon players and things wind down subtly as the music approaches the big entrance of the organ in the finale. Here again, we are not overwhelmed by the organ's sound, as balances are quite right, not something worked out by engineers who like to deafen listeners with canon shots in the 1812 Overture. The whole final sections brims with a sense of joy and triumph in this brilliantly conceived and executed performance.

All in all, this is an excellent disc from just about every perspective: not only are balances in the sound field about perfect but the sound reproduction itself is vivid and quite realistic. Highly recommended!

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings