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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Trois Pièces pour grand orgue, FWV 35-37 (1878) [33:02]
Trois Chorals pour grand orgue, FWV 38-40 (1890) [46:45]
Pétur Sakari (organ)
rec. 2020, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, Orléans, France
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2349 SACD [80:37]

There seems to have been a dearth of organ recordings lately – I don’t recall reviewing any in 2020 – so I was delighted to discover this Franck album on one of my late-night trawls of the Net. In particular, I was intrigued to see that the organist here is the Finn Pétur Sakari, whom I first encountered on his debut disc, set down for Fuga in 2009. Aptly titled Première, it’s a rather fine selection of French organ music, superbly recorded by Mika Koivusalo (review). Four years later, Sakari made another French-themed recording, this time for BIS, that was warmly received by Brian Reinhart a few years back (review). I’ve since listened to the 24/192 eClassical download of the latter, and was much impressed by the variety and ambition of the programme. Really, I ought not to have been surprised, as the young Finn, born in 1992, is a prodigious talent who took up the cello at three, started organ studies at eight, and gave his first organ recital at 13. And, thanks to fellow organists Kalevi Kiviniemi and Thierry Escaich, he’s also an accomplished improviser.

It was the 19th-century French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who created the iconic instruments that enabled the large-scale, more symphonic style of organ writing we associate with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor. These substantial instruments, installed in churches and cathedrals across France, would also be central to the careers and works of later composer-organists, among them Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen and Marcel Dupré. In short, the Cavaillé-Coll remains uniquely suited to this repertoire. That’s not to say other, more modern organs aren’t suitable. For instance, Hans-Eberhard Ross’s six-disc Franck survey is played on the 1998 Goll in the German Church of St Martin, Memmingen. (Here’s my review of Vol. 1 in this indispensable Audite set.) Similarly, Kiviniemi’s all-Franck SACD, another Koivusalo recording from 2008, showcased the newly built Paschen in Pori Central Church, Finland, installed the year before (review). The different character of these two instruments – the slightly cool but very refined Goll in particular – do much to leaven Franck’s stodgier fare.

Some of M. Aristide’s big beasts need taming, but the one played here seems very tractable indeed. Fantasie, the first of the Trois Pièces, reveals the organ’s clear, sweet upper reaches and firm, nicely integrated pedals. There’s also a remarkable degree of transparency here, which allows one to revel in the music’s inner voices. (Producer/engineer Lukas Kowalski’s highly accomplished recording is just one of the many pleasures on offer.) As for Sakari, he exudes a quiet authority, a pleasing blend of finesse and feeling, that demonstrates a real affinity for Franck’s oeuvre. As for the Cantabile, it’s as radiant as one could wish. The playing, although carefully considered, is never fastidious, and that brings with it a sense of cogency, of completeness, that one rarely hears in this repertoire. Then again, Sakari and Kowalski always put the music first, something that shows in every bar of this simply ravishing performance. And while the Finn’s account of the Pièce héroïque may not be as flamboyant as some, it is superbly structured. Unlike others, he generates a strong sense of cumulative tension that grips the listener from first to last. And it all ends in a rhythmically adept, beautifully articulated and perfectly proportioned finale. Indeed, the many revelations contained in Sakari’s performance of the Trois Pièces confirm just how far he’s come since Première. Frankly, if I were allowed just one recording of the work, this would be it.

For a distillation of Franck’s complex art, one need look no further than the Trois Chorals, composed in the last year of his life. A hefty piece that plays for around 45 minutes, it’s likely to be cited by Franckophobes as proof of the composer’s prolixity and bombast. It can certainly come across that way if entrusted to performers less attuned to the demands of this career-crowning opus. It goes without saying that our Finn – insightful and intuitive – isn’t one of those. No. 1 emerges with a gentle loveliness that finds composer, organist and engineer at their collective best, simple, unaffected music-making very well caught by a truly remarkable recording. Even in the big moments, there’s no loss of composure – musically or sonically. More important, perhaps, the music never descends into the hollow rhetoric that has the nay-sayers rubbing their hands in glee. Sakari’s reading of No. 2 has its epiphanies, too; in particular, he presents the score in ways that invite the listener to appreciate the full extent of the composer’s craft. (It’s a rare and welcome talent, especially where familiarity has dulled one’s responses to a given work.) As for the calming cadences at the end, they’re delivered with a serenity and grace that’s most affecting. Sakari rides the surge and swell of No. 3 with all the skill I’ve come to expect from him. As with the Pièce héroïque, he builds a fine edifice, pleasing to eye and ear. But what struck me most about his performance here is just how ­prescient he makes the music seem. Again, I ought not to have been surprised, given all that’s gone before. Good liner-notes and a list of organ specs round off what is sure to be one of my top picks for 2021.

Deeply impressive performances, rendered in top-flight sound; organ recordings don’t come much better than this.

Dan Morgan

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