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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:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

You have to wonder what Naxos is doing sometimes. Don't get me wrong; over the last decade and a half they have become a massive distribution powerhouse, while also remaining highly innovative and daring in terms of what they produce in-house. However, they have started to record core repertoire in a way that is not customer-friendly. Take this release from January of this year. It's excellent, and also creative in paying homage to the great symphonic organs of the past. But before 2015 is halfway over, Naxos will be halfway through its new Saint-Saëns Symphony cycle, thus duplicating this work. I understand that the market needs a new set of the complete canon; it's been decades since we got one of any real note. But now the consumer has two choices within the span of a few months. Maybe some collectors enjoy that, but I find it frustrating.

Still, if you love the organ, this disc is required listening. It starts off with a fun transcription of the Danse macabre for organ solo. Lyon's organist-in-residence Vincent Warnier chooses a sensible enough tempo that all the orchestral parts can clearly be heard. Organ transcriptions of symphonic music are often dreadful, in part because the organ – for all its color and dynamic range – cannot handle the wide range of tempo shifts and balances that the originals call for. Here everything goes smoothly, and that's a credit to Warnier's musicality and his own tasteful revisions to the arrangement. Less exciting is Cyprès et Lauriers, a two-movement piece of fluff that sounds particularly uninspired next to the Symphony. Still, there aren't many pieces that feature organ and orchestra, and aficionados will be pleased to have this fine performance.

I watch Leonard Slatkin here in Detroit a few times a month, and despite not being the thrill seeker like some of his younger colleagues on the podium, he's still a very fine conductor. In a previous review, I sniped at his earlier work in Lyon for Naxos. It's been variable, for sure, with his Ravel better than his Berlioz. Here, everything seems to click. The "Organ" Symphony is simply too easy to mess up, but the music-making here is excellent. The Lyon musicians play beautifully, while Slatkin seems more engaged than he typically is. The result is tremendous instrumental clarity allied with genuine excitement. The concluding finale is supremely managed, with an ideally mixed organ part. While not surpassing Paray on Mercury (there's a terrible brass flub for Munch on RCA), this stands as a terrific modern alternative and a win for Slatkin and Lyon.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman