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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross [39:18]
Trois pièces pour grand orgue [29:51]
Inga-Britt Andersson (soprano), Edwandro Strenzowski (tenor), Christian Rathgeber (tenor), Sebastian Pilgrim (bass), Daniel Beckman (organ)
Mainzer Domchor and Mainzer Domorchester/Karsten Storck
rec. 6 April 2014, Mainz Cathedral (St Martin) (Seven Last Words); 12 May 2015, St Stephan, Mainz (Trois pièces)

For most people Franck’s reputation rests on the handful of orchestral and instrumental works he composed towards the end of his life. However, his range was wider than is generally recognised and even extended to opera. His choral works, though nowadays neglected, are impressive and he himself considered his oratorio Les Béatitudes to be his masterpiece.

Here we have a real rarity, his setting of the Seven last words. Franck wrote this in 1859 but never published it and there is no record of a performance in his lifetime. It finally surfaced from a private collection in 1977, when the first performance was given. I wonder whether he felt it was too much in the shadow of Gounod, whose setting of this text dates from 1855, but as I have not heard Gounod’s work this is only speculation. Another possible reason for his withholding it is that Franck had not yet really developed his mature style and the inconsistencies show: there are florid, rather operatic arias, choral passages which can be homophonic and occasionally hark back to Bach or even Palestrina at one point, as well as the rich harmony characteristic of his mature work. Be that as it may, it is a beautiful work and well worth hearing.

The seven last words are actually sentences, though mostly short, taken from the gospels, none of which have all of them, and are brought together for devotional use. As a text for music they suffer both from being short and from being similar in mood. Franck therefore amplified them by adding other passages from the Bible or the liturgy, thereby creating the opportunity for more variation in mood and in texture. He uses four soloists as well as choir and orchestra and despite the inconsistencies in style achieves an overall unity which is both moving and impressive.

This performance has been most carefully prepared. Karsten Storck has understood that with Franck’s rich textures, as with those of Brahms, the important thing is to keep the music moving and not to luxuriate in the harmonies, and also that the choir must be absolutely precise. The choir of Mainz cathedral, a large all-male body, reward him with flexible and expressive singing and the soloists make workmanlike contributions. I have to say that the cathedral acoustic has a tendency to blur the textures so that it can be difficult to make out the words. Fortunately the booklet provides them all, both in the Latin which Franck sets and with translations into German and English, the English translations being the old traditional versions on which many of us were brought up. It also provides all the source references. All this more than makes up for its rather vague and rambling essay about the work.

The main work lasts for less than forty minutes so we have Franck’s Trois pièces pour grand orgue to make up the balance. These are well played by Daniel Beckman, but Franck actually composed them to inaugurate a new Cavaillé-Coll instrument and the Mainz instrument does not really sound right. Here the acoustic of the church chosen makes it hard to follow Franck’s intricate argument and the opening of the final Pièce héroïque dissolves into a blur. I put on Adriano Falcioni’s 2012 set of Franck’s organ works for comparison and immediately the pieces snapped into focus and I realized the difficulties Beckman’s instrument and setting were creating.

There is little competition for the main work. There is not much to choose musically between this performance and a 1979 performance under Hubert Beck on Audite, re-mastered in 1993. That was in analogue but that matters less than the fact that the soloists are recorded too far forward. There is also no coupling so that disc, if you can find it, is short value. There is also a performance under Michel Corboz which is coupled with Gounod’s setting. This should be interesting but I have not heard it and it uses a reduced scoring. Franckists wanting to explore beyond the few well-known works should try this new version.

Stephen Barber


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