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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Eve-Maud Hubeaux (mezzo-soprano)
Vlaams Radio Choir
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2018, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium

I am immediately brought up short by the opening statement of the booklet notes written by Roland van der Hoeven. He links Les Béatitudes, Panis Angelicus and Rédemption together as creating an aura “shrouding César Franck in a religious fog”. Musically, it is difficult to recognise any real connection between the work recorded here – Rédemption – and the immensely popular (and infinitely shorter) Panis Angelicus, while the sheer scale and drama of this work seem more to evoke great mountain ranges gleaming in the sun than any wallowing clouds of fog, religious or otherwise. In fact, the hugely invigorating second movement of this two-part, 10-movement choral and vocal extravaganza is such a homage to Wagner that if Franck is shrouded by anything here, it is Wagner’s ghost. The lengthy Morceau Symphonique which opens the second half of the work is so luxuriantly scored and so sensuously conceived, that the phrase “religious fog” is not just wholly irrelevant, but quite nonsensical especially in the light of the fact that this purely orchestral section is the only part of Rédemption which is at all frequently heard or recorded today as a stand-alone concert piece.

That Franck’s Rédemption is so rarely heard in its entirety – currently I know of only one other recording of the complete work (Michel Plasson on a 1994 Musical Heritage disc) as well as a couple which can be found in historic box-sets – is down to two problems; one practical, the other promotional. It is an impractical work to perform calling for large chorus and orchestra, mezzo-soprano solo and narrator (this Musique en Wallonie disc wisely dispenses with the narration to no great detriment to the ultimate performance), and it is notoriously difficult to pigeon-hole as belonging to one genre or another; something which has exercised to exhaustion most writers who have devoted any significant number of words to the work. It also got off to a bad start, the first version premiered in the Théâtre de l’Odéon under the direction of Georges Hartmann in April 1873 was a dismal flop; van der Hoeven suggests this might not be unconnected with “recent political events which had wrought such havoc in the city” and points out that the premiere performance had been “insufficiently prepared”. The much revised second version (premiered under Franck’s own direction at the Théâtre Ventadourin in March 1875) did not fare much better. Yet it shows a composer with an impressive grasp of orchestral scoring and a finely-tuned sense of the dramatic; comparisons with Berlioz are inevitable and the work does not suffer at all from any such comparisons. It is certainly a pivotal work both in Franck’s development as a composer for orchestra and the reception of his music by the public; within the next quarter century parts of the work - notably the “Archangel’s Aria” - established quite a hold in the repertory.

Van der Hoeven might emphasise Franck’s religious convictions and his “sincere Catholicism” in his notes, but this is music of a much more worldly mind, full of glorious and exuberant passages, wearing its very human emotions clearly on its musical sleeve and relishing the sheer opulence of a musical language which is about as far removed from the church as one could imagine. The text is by Edouard Blau (the oratorio is subtitled “Poème Symhonique d’Edouard Blau”) who is mostly remembered as an opera librettist, penning libretti for, among others, Godard’s Dante, Massenet’s Le Cid and Werther, and Lalo’s Le roi d'Ys. Little wonder, then, that Franck responded with music of such dramatic force that it reeks rather more of the opera house than the church.

This is a stirring and full-blooded performance by the Royal Liège Philharmonic under Hervé Niquet. The playing is vivid and splendidly caught in this excellent recording. In emphasising the orchestral element, I am merely reflecting the work itself which, while involving both a chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist, is much more an orchestral showpiece with vocal interjections. That said, the Vlaams Radio Choir exude great passion and spirit, especially the men in their extremely dramatic 7th movement “Chorus of Men”. I find the women possibly too fulsomely operatic to be wholly convincing in the following “Chorus of Angels”, and while there is no doubt that Eve-Maud Hubeaux possesses a voice of great robustness and warmth, hers is hardly a convincingly angelic delivery of the “Archangel’s Aria” from the work’s first part.

As usual the Musique en Wallonie label has enclosed the single CD within a gorgeous hard-backed booklet with lavish illustrations and thought-provoking as well as informative notes. The recording quality is excellent, and for those who have not encountered this work before, I would suggest they seek it out as soon as they like; it contains some of Franck’s most exciting and dramatically-charged orchestral music.

Marc Rochester

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