Monday 2 February 2015

A new release from Naxos with organist Vincent Warnier and the Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin brings works by Saint-Saëns to celebrate the inauguration of the newly restored Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Auditorium de Lyon

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) was born in Montpellier, France, to a family of organ builders. He built a reputation as being the most distinguished organ builder of the 19th century, developing the idea of the symphonic organ and pioneering innovations that influenced the course of organ building through the early twentieth century.

Shortly before Cavaillé-Coll’s death in Paris the business was inherited by Charles Mutin. He continued the business, but by World War II the firm had almost disappeared. 

Cavaillé-Coll’s largest and perhaps greatest organ is in Saint-Sulpice, Paris having 6,600 pipes and 100 stops. The Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Auditorium de Lyon, France  compares pretty well with that organ with its 6,500 pipes and 82 stops. Built at the Palais du Trocadéro, Paris in 1878, the organ was acquired by the city of Lyon in 1977. From April to November 2013, a team of specialists led by Michel Gaillard from the Manufacture Aubertin worked on its restoration. Their meticulous work turned the hundred year-old organ into a powerful instrument with a perfect tone.

It is this organ that is the star of a new release from Naxos featuring the organist in residence at the Auditorium de Lyon, Vincent Warnier  with the Orchestre National de Lyon  conducted by Leonard Slatkin . They show this magnificent organ off to great effect with works by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), his Danse Macabre, Cyprès et Lauriers and Symphony No. 3.


Danse macabre, Op.40 (1872/1919/2004) was arranged for organ by the English organist Edwin Lemare. Here that transcription has been revised by Vincent Warnier. It is certainly something of a showstopper, demonstrating the Cavaillé-Coll organ to great effect. Vincent Warnier realises Edwin Lemare’s arrangement to perfection, revealing many subtleties as well as some spectacularly fine playing toward the coda.

Saint-Saëns had this very Cavaillé-Coll organ in mind when he wrote Cyprès et Lauriers, Op.156 (1919), indeed the first performance was at the Palais du Trocadéro to celebrate the Armistice for which it was written. Saint-Saëns suggested that the first part for solo organ could be played separately for funerals. The second triumphant part brings in the orchestra complete with extended passages for trumpet and horn.

Vincent Warnier doesn’t over emphasise the dramatic in Cyprès, keeping its more funereal air and taking time to revel in the more subtle aspects of the music. Nevertheless he brings some very fine virtuosic moments, full of mastery and dexterity, building to a central climax of impressive power fully revealed by this excellent recording. 

Lauriers opens with a spectacular fanfare and a grand forward moving theme for the organ. As the piece develops, the organ and orchestra weave a seamless melody with Leonard Slatkin achieving a lovely balance helped enormously by Saint-Saëns’ light textured orchestration.  The music builds again to a triumphant celebratory coda, again spectacularly well recorded, with the organ blazing through the orchestral trumpets and percussion.

Saint-Saëns certainly didn’t have an organ as large and spectacular as the Palais du Trocadéro organ when his Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886) was first performed in London. It was at a concert in St. James’ Hall on 19th May 1886 attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The composer played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto before conducting his own Third Symphony. Unfortunately Saint-Saëns found that the organ in the hall was a modest 18 stop instrument by Bryceson Brothers and Ellis that had recently replaced a more suitable instrument by Gray and Davison that he had expected.

A finely paced Adagio leads to a beautifully textured Allegro moderato, beautifully controlled and paced with fine playing from Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon. There is beautifully taut playing with finely judged dynamics and beautifully smooth orchestral textures so that, when the dynamics rise, the contrast is terrific. There is a fine woodwind contribution in the lovely quieter moments before we flow into the Poco adagio where the Cavaillé-Coll organ gently emerges in the orchestral texture, for all its popular appeal, surely one of Saint-Saëns’ most sublime moments. Again Slatkin and Warnier balance the textures superbly. Slatkin brings out so much of the gorgeous romanticism of this movement with lovely details such as when pizzicato strings support the organ and orchestra.  

The strings of the Orchestre National de Lyon excel themselves as the dynamic Allegro moderato – Presto arrives with some beautifully fleet footed orchestral playing as the piano provides its distinctive contribution, something that seemed to strike The Times newspaper critic at the premiere more than the inclusion of an organ.  After the piano enters, Slatkin shapes the music beautifully and, as the movement progresses, there is more fine, taut playing and dynamics.

The organ sounds out firmly as the Maestoso – Allegro opens, the piano joins with its lovely rippling motif adding to the orchestral theme before the Cavaillé-Coll organ rises magnificently with the orchestra. Slatkin knows how to slowly pace the rise to the central section with some fine playing from the Orchestre National de Lyon. As the music builds again for the final climax it is superbly done with Slatkin soon letting his forces have their head as we lead into a truly exciting coda.  

There is no shortage of recordings of this symphony but this is a very fine issue indeed with Vincent Warnier a superb organist and Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon making a great team.

As a demonstration of the mighty Cavaillé-Coll organ this new disc is terrific. The recording fully plays its part. It has a very wide dynamic range but if the volume is turned up this is a spectacularly fine recording. There are informative booklet notes.

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