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Hyperion Records

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Exterior view of La Madeleine, Paris by Philippe Benoist (1813-c1905)
Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris / Lauros / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67815
Recording details: May 2009
La Madeleine, Paris, France
Produced by Michael Hedley
Engineered by Dick Koomans
Release date: August 2011
Total duration: 44 minutes 55 seconds

'O lucky Saint-Saëns! Lucky three times over! First, fortunate to have presided over Cavaillé-Coll's magnificent organ in La Madeleine; second, blessed with friends and pupils who revered him and inspired his improvisations; and third, surely grateful now to have in Andrew-John Smith an advocate who understands just how to lift from the printed page and project this remarkably rigorous yet beguiling music. The combination of this artist playing this music in such an authentic setting proves to be unbeatable' (Gramophone)

'Recorded on the Cavaillé-Coll instrument in Paris’s La Madeleine, where Saint-Saëns was organist for two decades, this programme centres on the sort of improvisations that spurred Liszt to describe Saint-Saëns as the finest organist in the world' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The preludes and fugues make a sharply contrasted trio: the first and last, in D minor and C, are grand in scale and conception; the second, in G, is much more compact and relaxed. Smith makes full use of the resources of the Madeleine instrument to colour them all' (The Guardian)

Sept Improvisations, Op 150
begun 9 December 1916, completed 12 February 1917; dedicated to Eugène Gigout

A major  [3'45]
Pro defunctis  [8'53]
E flat major  [5'32]
Pro martyribus  [6'07]
E major  [10'58]
A minor  [4'25]

Introduction  EnglishFrançais
Saint-Saëns wrote his Sept Improvisations, Op 150, between 9 December 1916 and 12 February 1917 whilst recovering in bed from bronchitis and gave their first performances in Marseille, Nice and Lyon a month or so later. With the exception of the Fantaisie pour Orgue-Aeolian of 1906 they are his first organ works since the Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op 109, written eighteen years earlier. It is to Périlhou, his friend and former pupil from the Neidermeyer school, that we should be eternally grateful for reawakening Saint-Saëns’ interest in the organ following his disillusionment and ultimate resignation from La Madeleine in 1878. Subsequent to the appointment of Périlhou as Organiste Titulaire of Saint-Sevérin at the beginning of 1891 Saint-Saëns was in the habit, accompanied by Fauré, of visiting him at the tribune each Sunday he was in Paris. The three friends would each contribute improvisations to the service before going out to lunch, Saint-Saëns often ‘dazzling his hearers with the magic of his magnificent improvisations’, according to Félix Raugel. Louis Vierne wrote of how Saint-Saëns loved to play the instrument at Saint-Sevérin and his contribution was clearly considered significant enough that in November 1897 he was given the title of honorary organist.

On completion of the Improvisations and before their first public performance Saint-Saëns went with Périlhou to the organ of the Temple de l’Étoile to play through them. The church’s organist, Alexandre Cellier, recalled in 1954 how Saint-Saëns had remarked on this occasion how enjoyable it was to play the organ; a comment he would scarcely have made in the years between 1878 and 1891. Whilst it would not be at all surprising to find the Op 150 set dedicated to Périlhou, it was in fact Gigout that received their dedication. Gigout, another of his Neidermeyer friends, was regarded by Saint-Saëns as one of the finest improvisers of his generation. Périlhou had retired in 1914 and as Gigout had been professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire since 1911, where he included Saint-Saëns’ works among the repertoire, it seems at least possible that the set was intended to have some didactic value. Three of the set are titled and use plainchant themes. ‘Feria Pentecostes’ is based on the first hymn of Lauds for Pentecost, Beata nobis gaudia; ‘Pro martyribus’ employs three phrases from the Offertory of the Mass for a martyr, Gloria et honore coronasti eum; ‘Pro defunctis’ quotes from the Offertory of the Requiem, Domine Jesu Christe. It is interesting to note that in these movements Saint-Saëns colours his harmony with the mixolydian or aeolian modes whilst in the freely written pieces his language is more contemporary. Not since the Messe, Op 4, and the Six Duos, Op 8, had he used chant in his written compositions. The first piece is similarly unusual for its ambiguous whole-tone tonality.

from notes by Andrew-John Smith © 2011

Other albums featuring this work
'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 3' (CDA66457)
Organ Fireworks, Vol. 3
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