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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, choral et fugue, CFF 24 [18:47]
Prélude, aria et final, CFF 26 [22:14]
Prélude, fugue et variations, trans. Harold Bauer, CFF 30B [11:17]
Choral pour grand orgue no. 2, trans. Nikolai Lugansky, CFF 106 [14:11]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
rec. 2019, Salle de Châtonneyre, Corseaux, Switzerland
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902642 [66:35]

Snidely referred to by Camille Saint-Saëns as “the eternal modulator,” the Belgian composer César Franck was devoted to the obsessive chromaticism of Wagner, marrying that intensely sensual and dramatic harmonic language to a true sense of Catholic piety. The effect can be jarring: quiet contemplation of a devotional nature invariably gives way to emotional outburst, often in a matter of seconds. This is never easy for the pianist, who must negotiate these mood shifts without resorting to cheap melodrama or performative religiosity.

The Prélude, choral et fugue is still performed regularly. Pianists including Alfred Cortot, Jorge Bolet, and Percy Grainger advocated on behalf of the lesser-known Prélude, aria et final, though without much audience enthusiasm. Harold Bauer’s lovely transcription of the organ Prélude, fugue et variation is not as well-known as the other two works, but it is an effective concert piece. The organ chorale is transcribed here by Nikolai Lugansky, but also exists in another transcription by Blanche Selva.

Lugansky’s performance of these works is elegant to the nth degree. The just-below-the-surface hysteria found in recordings by other pianists such as Egon Petri or Ernst Levy is nowhere to be found here. The Prélude, choral et fugue is set forth with quiet clarity, the fugue in particular being easy to follow in Lugansky’s capable hands. I prefer a more emotive vision of the score (a la Levy, whose recording is absolutely wild), but newcomers will appreciate the serene beauty Lugansky finds in the music. The Prélude, aria et final is less convincing; the piece is structurally not as strong as its sibling, and as a result, requires a more interventionist attitude from the performer. Alfred Cortot wrote of the “impression of uniformity” made by the prelude and aria; according to the French pianist, there is not enough variety of harmonic texture or style of writing, and as a result, the expressive value of the piece is weakened. Cortot’s famous 1932 recording has more overall momentum than in Lugasky’s disc, and he also does a better job of varying the repetitive material.

Lugansky is on surer ground in the Bauer transcription. His placid approach to the music suits the piece well, showing off his ability to create a long line (not to mention his beautiful finger legato). The new transcription of the Choral does not convince me any more than previous transcriptions I’ve heard; this is not a piece that works well on the piano. Without the organ’s ability to sustain protracted tones over and under moving lines, the piece feels episodic. The long-breathed phrases of the original are lost in translation, as are the impressive sonorities of the final pages.

A minor quibble: the back of the CD case makes a startling claim: “Given the paucity of César Franck’s piano music on disc, Nikolai Lugansky’s focus on this composer is to be commended.” Although the performances on this recording are excellent, there is no dearth of Franck-centered piano discs. Without referring to any search engine, I can think of at least three similar records: Stephen Hough, Paul Crossley, and Jorge Bolet.

Richard Masters

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