Berlioz famously observed, "The orchestra is emperor, the organ is pope": his implication being that a true partnership between them would be doomed. Saint-Saëns' ORGAN SYMPHONY testifies to the undue pessimism of Berlioz's verdict, and so does the much less familiar - a euphemism, in this case, for "completely unknown save to a handful of specialists" - repertoire collected here. Flawed though the sound quality of this disc might be (detail is pretty vivid, but the orchestra's acoustic never sounds really convincing), the performers' choice of music remains a fascinating one. A high level of genuine, as opposed to pseudo-, nobility marks the output of Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) and Leon Boëllmann (1862-1897). Best of the pieces here is the Guilmant FANTAISIE, which has an indelible main theme wedded to harmonies of beguiling Brucknerian stateliness; second-best is the Boellmann FANTAISIE DIALOGUEE, rather tougher, more tense and more robust than the SUITE GOTHIQUE, which is as near as this short-lived petit-maitre ever came to a popular hit. (Organists are almost all familiar with that suite, even if no-one else is.) A shame that more compositions by either Guilmant or Boëllmann could not have been found to complete the disc, since the contribution by Belgian lexicographer and part-time composer François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) makes by comparison for a rather feeble and protracted 17 minutes, with its idiom inclining all too frequently towards sub-Rossinian rhubarb-rhubarb.
Tonally the organ - in Ingolstadt, Bavaria - is not well suited to 19th-century Francophones' material; glassy and neoclassic in its sound, it lacks the warm voluptuousness of a Cavaillé-Coll instrument, though it would fit Hindemith's output to perfection. Still, Franz Hauk gives no sign of being daunted by any of the works' formidable technical difficulties, and Olaf Koch's direction is alert even when the problems of co-ordinating so vast a number of players in so resonant a venue must have reduced his role to little more than that of a traffic-policeman. Carping aside, the CD is a valuable discovery full of solid musical nourishment. It has, incidentally, appeared on several different labels since first being released.