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Hot on the heels of the completion of Andrew-John Smith’s full Saint-Saëns survey on Hyperion comes another overview of the composer’s solo organ music courtesy of Ben van Oosten, which joins intégrale offerings already available by Gerard Brooks (Priory), Vincent Genvrin (Éditions Hortus) and Stefan Johannes Bleicher (Arte nova).

Also entering the fray is a single-disc compendium from Magne H. Draagen recorded on the modern III/62 Van den Heuvel organ in Stockholm’s Katarina Church and centred on the two sets of Preludes & Fugues, the two Fantaisies and a brace of Guilmant transcriptions.

A note of caution first about Van Oosten’s claim to completeness: included on his three-disc recital are only the solo works; the organ Symphony and transcriptions are conspicuously absent.

That minor cavil out of the way, there is a lot to recommend in a recital that makes much of the delicate prettiness of Saint-Saëns’s resolutely conservative music.

Appropriately enough, Van Oosten is recorded on the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Église de la Madeleine, Paris, where Saint-Saëns spent two decades dazzling the congregation with his weekly improvisations while championing a decidedly antique attitude towards composition. Apparent from the first note here (the august Marche réligieuse) is the sheer authenticity of Van oosten’s take on proceedings, which is sober and solid – qualities Saint-Saëns would surely have appreciated. Throughout, the Cavaillé-Coll instrument works its big-boned, dark-grained magic, imbuing the Preludes & Fugues with a rich mahogany burnish, lending a lowering, introspective feel to the expressive late op.150 set of improvisations, and bringing orchestral brilliance to the Fantaisies.

In strikingly marked contrast, Draagen takes a less reverential (though no less respectful) approach, eloquently aided and abetted by the brighter, lighter voice of the Katarina Church’s 12-year-old organ. There’s a greater sense of freedom in the playing that nimbly side-steps the occasional hint of a museum patina on Van Oosten’s recital, the op.99 set of Preludes & Fugues especially benefiting, sounding intoxicatingly Catholic compared to the dour Protestantism of the Dutchman.

Both sets benefit from excellent recorded sound, with Van Oosten’s boasting excellent and extensive booklet notes by the organist.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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