Blanche Selva: Transcriptions for Piano
César Franck (1822-1890)
Trois chorals pour orgue, FWV 38-40
Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931)
Souvenirs, Op. 82
Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)
En Vacances 2e recueil (extrait): La Vasque aux colombes
Christophe Petit (piano)
rec. 2021, Studio Stephen Paulello, Villethierry, France
First recordings: Franck, d’Indy
CIAR CLASSICS CC011 
Reading through the booklet notes to this release I was surprised to see that books have been published related to Selva's protein activity. Wondering if this was some scientific aspect of her career that I was unaware of I translated the French notes; protéiforme means protean which makes a lot more sense in light of Selva's multi-faceted career. The booklet notes are actually very informative both about Selva and the music and composers she was intimately associated with; it is just necessary to ignore the odd his rather than her that seems to have crept in. I note from an earlier review that one of the booklet authors, Guy Selva, is a second cousin and president of the Blanche Selva Association.
I first heard her name, albeit only in passing, in Harold Schonberg's invaluable book The Great Pianists where he talks about Albéniz's Iberia and Selva's appalled comment it is unplayable. She did go on to premiere most of the work and promoted the music of many of her contemporaries, Vincent D'Indy, Jean Roger-Ducasse, Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel amongst them, as well as playing Bach's entire keyboard output in recital. She was a composer and transcriber and a great teacher and writer, two aspects of her life that took centre stage when illness ended her performing career in 1930. She died of cancer in 1942.
In 1929 and 1930 she made a small selection of solo recordings including a wonderful version of César Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue and he was one of her favourite composers; for Durand she transcribed seven of his organ works, the Chorals recorded here and the second Fantaisie, Grande Pièce Symphoniqe, Prière and Final – Harold Bauer's masterly transcription of the Prélude, Fugue and variation comes from the same series of transcriptions. Selva follows in a great tradition of organ transcriptions mostly of Bach's works but also encompassing Buxtehude, Reubke and others. She is as faithful as possible to the originals that were written just a year before Franck's death; there are occasional octave doublings to suggest the deep resonance of the organ and copious and clever use of the sostenuto pedal to sustain long notes whilst maintaining clarity in contrapuntal lines but ultimately these are sophisticated piano recreations. In his transcription of the third Choral Stephen Hough (Hyperion Records CDA66918) is slightly more organ-like with thicker textures on some the chords but acknowledges that this is the most piano-like of the three. Christophe Petit plays them with clarity and precision in the often dense contrapuntal lines and is skillful and seamless in his use of the sostenuto pedal. The piano, which has its own biography in the booklet, is by Stephen Paulello and has an expanded range, 102 keys instead of the usual 88 along with several other features and it is evident in the maestoso section of the first Choral, starting at 5:18, that the bass is not your usual bass; there is a real sepulchral feeling to the low notes and a deep resonance to the deep bass octave at 5:39 that I don't think my player does full justice to; it would be interesting to hear this piano in concert bringing the desires of a composer such as Ferruccio Busoni to life with its extended range. There is a real warmth and fullness to the sound as well even in the quietest passages.
Vincent d'Indy, a pupil of Franck, was another composer that Selva was close to, having been his pupil and then teaching at his Schola Cantorum de Paris. D'Indy never intended his Symphonic poeme Souvenirs for public consumption beyond a single public performance, considering it more of an intimate and personal tribute to his wife Isabelle de Pampelonne who had died in 1905. In it he revisits music from his Poème de montagne – the theme is marked la bien-aimée in that score and is used in all movements except the first; here it appears transformed throughout the work, mournful, majestic and tragic by turns. In the broad atmospheric opening I imagine I can hear a snippet of the libera me from Fauré's Requiem which would not be out of place. Souvenirs was premiered in 1907 and Selva began working on this transcription immediately. It is something of a tour-de-force for the pianist, not only in the sheer amount of notes that have to be navigated but also texturally, finding colour and contrast to compensate for the lack of orchestral timbre. As in the Chorals Petit is creative in his use of the pedals to mould the melodies and it is in the bleaker music that I find him most communicative; the pathos in the C minor section at 10:15 or when the harp rings out the hours recalling the time of Isabelle's passing. The high tremolando A in the final bars is perhaps not absolutely convincing but then it is a little unfair to expect a piano to effectively recreate the ghostly shimmer of high strings.
Selva was closer to Déodat de Séverac than any other composer; indeed she wrote a biography in 1930 and played all his music, recording three items in 1929. After de Séverac's death in 1921 Selva discovered the three works that were intended as a second series of en Vacances, the second of which, la vasque aux colombes – the Dove basin, was incomplete. With her intimate knowledge of his style and with notes and 55 bars of manuscript she made this idiomatic completion. In this charming dance one is taken back to earlier French composers, Rameau and Couperin with its fanciful ornamentation, even Scarlatti with the cross hands technique that is found in the return of the opening music. Séverac's creation ends in mid phrase and Selva cleverly creates an evocative reflective section out of the motifs in the introductory music.
Christophe Petit has done Selva proud introducing us to these skillful transcriptions; it is a delight to have a more rounded picture of this enterprising pianist who did so much for the contemporary music of her time.
Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Stephen Greenbank