César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Les Béatitudes (1879) [119:32]
Louise Lebrun (soprano); Jane Berbié (mezzo); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); David Rendall (tenor); Peter Jeffes (tenor); Marcel Vanaud (baritone); François Loup (bass); Daniel Ottevaere (bass)
Choir of Radio France, New Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France/Armin Jordan
rec. Church of Saint Louis des Invalides, Paris, 20-21 November 1985. DDD
WARNER APEX 2 CD 2564 69045-2 [56:46 + 62:46]

This re-release of César Franck’s oratorio Les Béatitudes will undoubtedly please fans of the Belgian composer, but it is unlikely to stir the enthusiasm of more casual music-lovers.

This is an ageing recording, dating from a quarter of a century ago. Originally issued by Erato, it has now been released by Warner Classics and Jazz through its budget Apex label. The sound quality is rather stuffy and two-dimensional. This is not helped by the absorbent acoustics of the Saint Louis des Invalides church and the live audience in attendance. In addition, the listener’s knowledge and appreciation of the oratorio is hindered by the complete absence of background notes and a full text.

The biggest problem is the music itself. Composed intermittently between 1869 and 1879, Les Béatitudes was not performed in full until June 1891 (in Dijon), seven months after Franck’s death. It suffers from a dense, even priggish, libretto by a ‘Madame Colomb’, the wife of a friend of the composer. Given the limited range of its subject matter – Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount – the oratorio is too long. Its lengthy declamatory passages tend to drag, while much of the choral writing is stodgy. Melodically, the work is less than inspired.

Nevertheless, Les Béatitudes does have its attractions, especially the audible influences on Franck at this time. There are shades of Berlioz in the orchestration, particularly in Franck’s use of swirling strings and punchy brass motifs - for example during the First Beatitude and the prelude to the Fourth. There are also tonal nods towards Wagner in the Prologue and the end of the Third Beatitude, which in parts also resembles Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. But much of the time one gets the impression that Franck was striving for dramatic power without being able to achieve it.

The Radio France choir sings valiantly throughout, but their division into earthly and celestial choruses makes little impact, partly because both halves sound so much alike, and partly because they appear to be placed too close together. The soloists too get mixed reviews. Marcel Vanaud is a sturdy and reassuring Christ, while François Loup’s brief entry as Satan in the Seventh Beatitude is truly Mephistophelian. David Rendall’s vibrato is too pronounced not to get noticed during the Fourth Beatitude, and Louise Lebrun makes for a matronly Angel of Mercy in the Fifth.

Definitely of interest, then, to Franck aficionados on a tight budget. Those who are only mildly interested in the composer’s output should stick to the better known orchestral and chamber works.

John-Pierre Joyce