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CÚsar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Chorale No.1 in E [16:37]
Extracts from Hulda and Ghiselle [11:01]
Chorale No.2 in B minor [15:39]
Chorale No.3 in A minor [14:34]
Yoann Tardivel (organ)
rec. Moulins Cathedral, Allier, France
HORTUS 147 [57:56]

A booklet which philosophises at length over all sorts of esoteric issues connected with the Franck Chorales misses out on quite a lot of basic but useful information, not the least of which is details on the organ itself. Digging around, I came across a website in French which tells how a tender submitted in 1872 for a new organ by Aristide CavaillÚ-Coll was deemed too expensive, and a cheaper one from Joseph Merklin accepted instead four years later. The Merklin organ was inaugurated in 1880 by, among others, Guilmant, and is described as “a fine example of Merklin’s church-symphonic style”. The last serious work was done on the instrument, it would seem, in 1992 by Micolle and Valentin. From this recording, the organ certainly sounds well, and its well-balanced stop-list means that it is well suited to the coloristic demands of Franck’s music. Of even more significance is the unusually transparent sound and the cathedral’s uncluttered acoustic both of which help reveal much of the inner detail in Franck’s often very densely-textured wiring.

On a purely sonic level, then, this is a recommendable performance of the three Chorales, although the recording seems a little distant, giving a realistic sound as if from the nave, but at the same time rather suppressing the music’s big climaxes. The documentation with the disc, while extensive, is all a little self-indulgent and of limited value to those who might be encountering this music for the first time. What, then, of the playing itself.

I have to confess that Yoann Tardivel was a new name to me. He studied in Paris (with Olivier Latry), Copenhagen (with Bine Bryndorf) and in Brussels (with Bernard Foccrulle), and he now teaches alongside Foccrulle at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. For Hortus he has already released one CD (of the organ music of Jehan Alain), and this disc of Franck seems to be his second. On the basis of what I hear here, he is certainly both a committed and thoughtful interpreter of Franck’s music, and it is good to have a player who seems more preoccupied with the essence of the music than the opportunities it affords for aural display, even if the result is playing which does not immediately leap out and hold your attention. If there is an issue with his interpretations, it’s a tendency towards particularly slow speeds. I find the very slow speed at which Tardivel takes the first statement of the chorale theme in No.3 (1:45) makes it sound unpleasantly laboured, and a very literal interpretation of Franck’s “Molto rall.” coupled with a rather bleating, tremulant-infested sound, does nothing to endear me to the closing bars of Chorale No.2. In short, these are clearly performances which have been thought out in very profound detail, and are always true to the letter of Franck’s score, but which lack that compromise between literary faithfulness, interpretative honesty and dramatic gesture which is what this music needs to communicate itself fully.

There is, however, something on this disc which deserves particular mention, and that is the inclusion of three pieces arranged and transcribed for organ by Charles Tournemire from two of Franck’s doomed operas (Groves Dictionary describes Hulda as “ill-fated” and Ghiselle as “an abortive operatic scheme”). Neither was a success in Franck’s lifetime, but in his own booklet notes, Tardivel enthuses about the music of both, describing them as “the composer’s most personal”. Tournemire took two short movements from Hulda and one from Ghiselle and turned them into a kind of short three-movement Suite, which reveals (if we are to accept that what we hear is Franck rather than Tournemire) a much more enigmatic and fluid style of writing than we hear in Franck’s earlier works. For this music alone, not to mention Tardivel’s beautifully florid performance of it, the disc is worth seeking out.

Marc Rochester

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