Saint-Saëns/Poulenc/Handel: Organ Concertos, Op. 4/4 & 6; Organ Concerto No. 4; Organ Concerto No. 6, Op. 7/1 & 4; Concerto No. 13

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Saint-Sa‘ns/Poulenc/Handel
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Organ Concertos, Op. 4/4 & 6; Organ Concerto No. 4; Organ Concerto No. 6, Op. 7/1 & 4; Concerto No. 13
PERFORMER: Marie-Claire Alain (organ); Orchestre de Chambre Jean-François Paillard/Jean-François Paillard
CATALOGUE NO: 2292-45930-2 ADD
Erato has released 15 CDs in its new Bonsai series of reissues at budget price, generously filled at about 70 minutes each. The recordings of mainly popular classics date from the Sixties through to the Eighties and contain some enticing items, not least from the organist Marie-Claire Alain. On one disc, Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony is coupled with Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, conducted by Jean Martinon with the Orchestre de l’ORTF. Apart from some occasionally clumsy remastering of the Organ Symphony (the first movement is cut off extremely abruptly, and the acoustic is sometimes rather dry) and a couple of moments when the orchestra could be more tightly focused, this is a strong performance. The temptation to sentimentalise is resisted, so that the stately melodies of the first movement’s Poco adagio have an almost Elgarian nobility, while the urgency of the Allegro section is nicely raw. Alain’s organ sound never overwhelms the orchestra, but her grand entry at the start of the finale is appropriately gigantic. The orchestra gives a grimly humorous rendition of the Danse macabre in which the bones truly rattle, but the highlight of the disc is the account of Poulenc’s strangely evasive Organ Concerto, in which the bizarre shifts of tone, from vaudeville to the devotional, are sympathetically accommodated.

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On another disc, Alain performs Handel organ concertos with the Orchestre de Chambre Jean-François Paillard. This isn’t for the authentic purists, played as it is on modern instruments with the strings waxing very smoothly indeed, but the sound is never swollen (though at times the speeds are rather sluggish). Alain’s organ playing (here, the Kern organ from the Collégiale de Saint-Donat, Drôme, is always intimate, with an emphasis on the religious rather than the improvisatory quality of these works.

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Elsewhere in the series Alain gives a Bach recital (2292-45922-2), and there are other discs well worth investigating, including Mendelssohn’s Symphonies 4 and 5 from the ECO under Raymond Leppard (2292-45932-2) and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria from Claudio Scimone (2292-45942-2). A black mark to Erato, however, for failing to include any cover notes with the discs. William Humphreys-Jones