Blanche Selva: Transcriptions for Piano
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Trois chorals pour orgue, FWV 38-40 [36:07]
Vincent d’INDY (1851-1931)
Souvenirs, op. 82 [20:01]
Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872-1921)
En Vacances 2e recueil (extrait): La Vasque aux colombes [4:41]
Christophe Petit (piano)
rec. 4, 5, 7 June 2021, Studio Stephen Paulello, Villethierry, France
Premiere recordings: Franck, d’Indy
CIAR CLASSICS CC011 [60:52]
This is the latest issue from CIAR, the Centre International Albert-Roussel, whose purpose is to give wider exposure to the works of the French impressionistic, then neoclassical, composer Roussel (1869-1937) and his contemporaries. It showcases not only three generations of important French composers in Franck, Séverac and d’Indy but also the transcription work of Blanche Selva, described in pianist Christophe Petit’s informative notes as “the unequalled interpreter of the first, the propagandist of the second and the artistic alter ego of the third”. A child prodigy and celebrated pianist as well as a music professor, teacher, author and composer, Selva was ideally qualified to adapt the first two works from organ and orchestra respectively and complete de Séverac’s sketches for performance on the grand piano. This makes for an hour of engaging piano music which includes two world premiere recordings and embraces a variety of styles, sensitively and expertly executed by M. Petit.
Written for a Cavaillé-Coll organ built for the 1878 World Fair in Paris but not completed until twelve years later, shortly before Franck’s death from pleurisy, the Trois chorals are considerably more formal and cerebral than the more Romantic pieces which ensue and the contrapuntal influence of Bach is very evident, yet they are much freer, more like fantasies, and full of calm, broad melodies such as opens the first E major work. As such, there is a kind of ongoing tension in them between the austere and the rhapsodic. As Franck himself said, “Before I die, I am going to write some organ chorales, as Bach did, but on a quite different plan”; they have a cyclical structure but instead of traditional hymns he employs original, freely-composed melody which is developed, as he wrote to his publisher, “with great imagination”. Christophe Petit plays its cascading arpeggios and stately chords with great poetic feeling, making liberal use of rubato and creating a resonance surprisingly reminiscent of the concert instrument for which the works were originally composed and striking a fine balance between maintaining both an improvisatory nature and a sense of shape, so that the conclusion to that first chorale is grand and imposing. The notes provide some detailed technical explanation of how the scoring and fingering instructions in Selva’s transcription help the pianist to make such an effect.
There is more than a touch of Brahms to the B minor chorale, a passacaglia recalling the Four Serious Songs and even the Requiem. Petit brings great dignity and moment to his playing, injecting the work with passion and gravitas; the conclusion is a mighty, hard-won apotheosis which first returns to the Bachian model, then breathes tranquility.
To my ears, despite the skill of Selva’s transcription, the A minor is the chorale least able to shake off its origin as an organ piece and sounds a little “lost” played on the piano but that it is a subjective response and in no way diminishes either Selva’s or Petit’s virtuosity. Once again, after a highly complex succession of modulations and contrapuntal passages, it concludes magnificently in a triumphant A major coda.
Souvenirs was d’Indy’s tribute to his wife, who died prematurely; in the opening and closing sections one clearly hears the influence of Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral). It is essentially a series of variations on the main motif and begins in sombre, reflective mode, punctuated by slight dissonances suggestive of pain and sorrow but then evolves into passages of joy and even rapture reminiscent of Rachmaninov. Christophe Petit’s flexible playing is of great dynamic and tonal variety, successfully encompassing all these moods - and he creates a truly ethereal effect with the final, trilling bars.
After his death, Blanche Selva found in de Séverac’s desk drawer fifty-five bars of the unfinished La Vasque aux colombes and decided to complete it by adding sixty-six bars of her own. As such, it is not actually a transcription but a kind of joint-composition. Its French title sounds so much more elegant than its literal English translation “The dove bird-bath” or “basin”, and it makes a cheerful conclusion to this recital, its opening suggestive of bird song and sunshine and with more than a hint of Rameau about its pearly roulades and folksy charm.
The disc is impeccably recorded and attractively presented in a slimline, cardboard digipack and but as the translator of the notes from the French into English, I feel obliged to point out that I am not responsible for the printing error in the first line of the section about Blanche Selva, whereby the French word “ignorent” has been left in the text, nor the poor translation describing the ethos of the Association Blanche Selva on page 17; the amiable producer Damien Top assures me that such oversights will be corrected in future. However, the main section describing Blanche Selva’s life and work, written by her biographer, second cousin and president of the Association, Guy Selva, is full and interesting, useful both as an introduction to her life and to set the pieces in context.