This Naxos release is a tribute to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and a particular instrument he built in 1878, formerly housed in the Maurice-Ravel Auditorium and acquired by the city of Lyon in 1977. It has 82 stops and 6,508 pipes and is recognised as “one of the most beautiful French organs. From April to November 2013, a team of specialists led by Michel Gaillard from the Manufacture Aubertin worked on its restoration. The meticulous work they made turned the hundred year-old organ into a powerful instrument with a perfect tone.”
Certainly it is rich and colourful, as demonstrated by the opening track, Danse macabre, an orchestral gem by Camille Saint-Saëns, here twice-arranged for organ. For all the beguiling and varied sonorities, and Vincent Warnier’s undoubted skill, it doesn’t quite convince. That said, the timbres are recognisably Gallic and would no doubt have delighted the composer, himself a fine organist. The sound-quality is superb in showcasing the instrument’s vibrant and dynamic range. As a comparison, Leonard Slatkin and his Lyon Orchestra should have recorded the original.
It’s organ nearly all the way in Saint-Saëns’s Cyprès et Lauriers, written in 1919 to celebrate the end of World War One and the Allied victory, for there is nothing in the work’s first part for the orchestra to do. ‘Cypress’ is rather severe and mysterious, although one can admire Warnier’s artistry. ‘Laurels’ is introduced by ceremonial brass and side drum, assertive music including a horn solo (deftly played), fugal elements, and a jaunty and rousing finish.
A Saint-Saëns masterpiece completes the disc. Symphony No.3 is saddled in English with being known as the ‘Organ’, simply because the orchestration includes it, and sometimes given the excuse to dominate horribly (Karajan’s recording is hideous in this respect). Saint-Saëns’s title “with organ” is far more accurate and civilised, and the instrument is only heard in the second and final movements.
This ONL outing under Slatkin is very agreeable, being well-paced, sensitive and bustling (reminding in some respects of Ansermet's splendid Decca version). Plenty of energy but not rush informs the vividly detailed first movement. In the linked-to and heaven-sent Adagio the organ is darkly and quietly supporting of the serenely beautiful string melody, impressively tender and responsive here. Vigour informs the brilliant Scherzo and agility is to the fore in the spectral Trio, a virtuoso display of invention and orchestration during which a piano (played by four hands) makes an appearance. The organ comes into its own in the grand finale, thankfully with some discretion (you can still hear the orchestra and percussion is not thrashed), ceremonial and roof-raising, here majestic and goal-bound. I would have welcomed more from the timpani at the very end, however.
In terms of the Symphony, this is an impressive and incident-packed account of music that is always good to come across, ending joyfully, and generally organ-fanciers needn’t hesitate. Radio France’s recording is a model of clarity and good balance while also suggesting the airiness of a large, custom-built concert hall.