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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
The Great Organ Works Vol. 1 & 2

Vol. 1:
Fantasie in C Op 16 [11.36]
Grand Pièce Symphonique Op 17 [22.04]
Prélude, fugue et variation Op 18 [10.00]
Prière Op 20 [12.23]
Final Op 21 [11.14]
Vol. 2:
Pastorale Op 19 [9.03]
Trois Pièces:
Fantasie in A M35 [12.14]
Cantabile M36 [5.19]
Pièce héroique M37 [7.50]
Trois Chorales:
Chorale No. 1 in E
M38 [12.55]
Chorale No. 2 in b minor M39 [12.57]
Chorale No. 3 in a minor M40 [12.08]

Eric Lebrun, Cavaillé-Coll Organ, Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, Paris, November 1997
Naxos 8.554697 (Vol. 1) [67.17]
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Naxos 8.554698 (Vol. 2) [72.24]
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Listed Comparison:

Chorale No. 2 in b minor M39; Fantasie in A M35; Grand Pièce Symphonique Op 17
Jennifer Bate, Grands Orgues de la Cathédrale, Saint Pierre de Beauvais. Unicorn-Kanchana Vol. II; DKP 9014. rec. 1984.

The organ works we tend to associate with Franck are those written in his last years by which time Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) and Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937) had produced much of their output. But it was his earlier works that influenced them, in the great French organ revival. The first of these volumes clearly concentrates on a flush of opus numbers Op 16-21, with Op 19 squeezed onto the second disc with the last works. This isn't the complete organ oeuvre but comprises the normal two-volume pantheon otherwise available, as with Jennifer Bate on Unicorn Kanchana. With their close and fairly spectacular sound, ideal organ, very fine playing and the brisk tempi of organist Lebrun, there's no reason to hesitate if you haven't already acquired these works. Bate's timing for Chorale No. 2 was 14'07" as opposed to 12'57" for Lebrun. Other timings come near 13' so Lebrun's approach, direct, less richly involved than Bate, helps the structural impact of the chorales. In the earlier sectional works dating from 1862 (published 1868) Lebrun is challenged with sustaining cogency and interest.

His way with the Fantasie Op 16 is as delicate as a Cavaillé-Coll Organ allows. The Fantasie is a strange work, difficult at first to adjust to in specific gravity; mostly slow, with quiet surges of churchy passions. The Grand Pièce Symphonique Op 17 on the other hand, with its slow opening succeeded by differing speeds and textures, is easy to grasp sectionally. One is occasionally battered into belief that it's a complete coherent piece; it hardly matters. It's the fledgling work from which Franck was to launch his other large-scale works (his early piano concerti aside). Beethoven is the model here, with the recapitulation of themes, in the 9th Symphony, that Franck was later to evolve into his cyclic forms. Chromatically, Liszt and Wagner are never far away. The Allegro non troppo e maestoso of this work launches into a thrilling fugue, and real Lisztian paragraphs, redolent of the virtuoso Franck's father wanted him to be. And the Allegretto ma non troppo of the Prélude, fugue et variation Op 18 (just to get ahead of ourselves) is a pure Liszt fugue straight out of the Piano Sonata in b minor of 1853, nine years earlier than this group of works. The Andante of the Grand Pièce is sweetly religiose, but with rays of pure Franckian melody. The Allegro non troppo e maestoso marking returns to round off Franck's first substantial large-scale work of genius. Its five-note syncopated motto theme is wonderfully, memorably portentous, and is transfigured in a radiant shower of Lisztian Gretchen music from the Faust Symphony. It's taken with a peroration and ennobling of the motto straight off to Heaven - and a truly Platonic Cavaillé-Coll (surely Heaven, if it has an organ, must have one of these, to Bach and Reger's consternation). Bate takes 2'50" longer, in her more reverberant acoustic.

The Prélude, fugue et variation Op 18 is the most celebrated of this group, chromatically and structurally recognisable as the Franck of the last 15 years. The last movement is pure Franck, lyrical, elegiac yet final. It's an unusual conclusion, again recalling how Liszt ended his Piano Sonata, quietly. Prière Op 20 is what it suggests, though longer at 12'23" than such pieces tend to warrant. It's more a meditation, sectional with a kind of return to the opening - the kind of work Messiaen, through others, was to build on. The Final Op 21 crumphorns its fanfares with attractive French gothic vulgarity. One imagines this varied piece ended various services. It launches into an allegro molto second subject that quietens, then returns to the crumphorns to vary positively till the end.

Vol. 2 opens with the Pastorale Op 19, more Latinate than the German structural gestures elsewhere. It's thus allied to the succeeding Prière Op 20 and Final Op 21 in exploiting freedoms not fully taken up in fuller form until later. The central scherzando section enlivens the work, shafted as it is with forest murmurs and snakes in the Arcadian grass. This dates, like its companions, from 1862. The Trois Pièces are from 16 years later, and by 1878 Franck was beginning to be fully established in his bande-à-Franck, with the Piano Quintet (that so infuriated the jealous Saint-Saëns with its Augusta Holmès-inspired fervour) just a year off. They are regarded as perhaps more secular pieces than their predecessors. Certainly secular works and passions were beginning to re-animate Franck just then. A Fantasie in A opens with a noble, echoed theme. It develops into a repetitive two-note ascending figure offset by four tied ones descending the chromatic scale, almost pre-echoing the first movement of the orchestral symphony of 1889. In fact melodically this piece must be the closest model to that work. The cyclic form emerges triumphant, and one can see it in Piano Quintet colours too. Bate takes just a little longer, 12.52, as opposed to 12.14. I enjoyed her grandeur, though felt Lebrun's nudging of the main theme's tempo was just right. Bate has a sweeter top register, or elects to employ one. Some of the stops sound a little more transparent too. Her instrument and acoustic sharpen Franck's more inflated meringues with a touch more lemon.

The Cantabile serves as a small Non troppo lento movement, again wholly Franckian in its descending figures. The Pièce héroique is an almost priapic struggle of the hen-pecked man who was putting on late cubits and falling in love, perhaps. Unfair perhaps, but emblematic of Franck's shifting and secularised interests entering a broader music world amid reverent, adoring pupils. Something of success and defiance shines through here. Again, the almost tragic stature of this work reminds one of the sound-world of the Symphony. The Allegro maestoso isn't quite the symphony's Allegro non troppo but hardly far off.

The Trois Chorales are Franck's masterworks for organ, completed the year he died, 1890, following an omnibus accident that May, proving fatal six months later. Like Janacek he flowered late and then died prematurely through an accident. Janacek had said he'd almost finished what he wanted to say and was on the point of revising unfinished works. Franck's last works might not have been so comfortingly intentioned. And they're not comforting in his old religiose manner. Lebrun takes them swiftly. The first in a radiant E major, is more in the old manner, a calm before two minor storms. On pianissimo wind stops it builds affirmatively. No. 2 in b minor darkens into the light on a four-note theme very gently for seven minutes, then the gothic is back, arching themes to the roof in a silvery series of stops that never overload with cholesterol. Here, clear textures are needed. As mentioned, Bate's timing for Chorale No. 2 was 14'07" as opposed to 12'57". And here, a reverberant transparency is telling, though Lebrun carries through with great linear strength. In truth, there's little between these organs. Lebrun is able to call on clarity too, and is often thrilling. The piece ends quite unexpectedly in minor-toned contemplation. No. 3 is the greatest, with a repeated a minor introductory theme - syncopated dipping and rising through a recitation of itself that moves through slower trumpet stops into some superb melodies.

Franck's own markings were more precise than his contemporaries, yet he played with great freedom. His own organ at St Clotilde was unusual, old-fashioned by later Cavaillé-Coll standards, but with a powerful crumphorn and bassoon-oboe stop, positive, and Swell. This gives some indication of the textures we can lose, unless made aware of them. Franck is a greater colourist on the organ, and thus in the orchestra, than he's given credit for. Lebrun adds a note that he elected this present instrument, as it was his own. Details are needed. This 72-manual Cavaillé-Coll Organ dates from 1890-97 for the great amateur Baron Albert de L'Espée whose neighbours threatened him with legal action. He gave it to the Church and installed a 20-manual one instead. Another 46-manual instrument was destroyed with one of his chateaux when the Germans left Paris in 1944 (the particular notes on this section by Yves Rousseau say 1945). In sum, an excellent bargain, very well-played and recorded. There are brighter-toned organs, as Bate demonstrates but that's niggling between heroic installations.

Simon Jenner

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