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 
For those who aren’t familiar with her name, Blanche Selva (1884-1942) was a distinguished French pianist and pedagogue. Her first piano teacher was Sophie Chéné, who prepared her for entry to the Paris Conservatoire. Here she came to the attention of Vincent d'Indy, who later appointed her professor of piano at the city's Schola Cantorum when she was just eighteen. As well as her teaching duties, she established a career as a successful concert pianist. In addition to the standard repertoire, she championed such composers as Albéniz, Roussel, Dukas, Roparz, Magnard and de Séverac. Her biography of Déodat de Séverac was published in 1930. In 1925 she relocated to Barcelona and formed a duo partnership with Joan Massià (1890-1969), a Catalan composer and violinist, being drawn to his "admirable style and accomplished skills". Selva was initially hostile to the recording process, but was finally coaxed into the studios of Paris and Madrid in 1929 and 1930 to set down a handful of 78s. Sadly, these were to be her sole recorded legacy. Shortly afterwards she had a stroke and, her career at an end, she returned to France, where she died in poverty in 1942. It’s worth mentioning that in seventeen concerts over the winter of 1903-1904, the twenty-year-old Selva performed the complete keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach at the Schola Cantorum. Bach was the composer she played most often throughout her career.
“Before I die, I am going to write some organ chorales, just as Bach did, but on quite a different plan” declared César Franck in 1889. He completed his ambition, composing his Trois Chorals over the course of two months in the summer of 1890, which was to be the last year of his life. They were published a year later. In the accompanying notes, Petit goes into some detail by way of explanation as to how Selva has made these transcriptions, and how they have adapted well to the percussive nature of the piano. No 1 in E major is the most warmly melodic and intimate, and sounds the least demanding technically. Yet, for all its perceived simplicity, there’s an underling nobility in the exalted chordal passages, which alternate with some arpeggiated writing. Petit brings a fine array of colour to his playing. Next comes the B minor, which opens in somber Brahmsian fashion. This Choral is imbued with deep feeling and resembles a magnificent passacaglia “suggesting the tolling of a great bell as it moves from somber genesis through an avalanche of sound to its peaceful end”. Petit’s reading is one of heroic proportions. The Third Choral in the key of A minor is the most ‘pianistic’. It begins with a florid toccata, followed by a contrasting adagio theme. The toccata returns at the end, embellished and interweaved with other themes heard earlier on.
Souvenirs pays tribute to Vincent d’Indy’s wife Isabelle, who died in 1905 shortly after the composer returned from a trip to the States. This poème pour orchestre was penned the following year. It’s a deeply personal score, expressing not only sorrow and loss, but also joy on reflection of happier times. Selva’s piano transcription captures the mood brilliantly, evoking ghostly premonitions at the start. As the work progresses, quiet reflection alternates with volatile outbursts. Petit has full measure of the undulating contours of this delicious score.
Déodat de Séverac wrote two sets of En vacances (On Holiday). The second set consists of three pieces. The first is titled La Fontaine de Chopin, an endearing waltz evoking the spirit of Chopin. The second La Vasque aux colombes portrays a ‘Dove fountain’ and the third Les Deux Mousquetaires evokes ‘The Two Musketeers’. The second piece remained unfinished at the composer’s death. It was fitting that Blanche Selva, as his biographer, should complete it with the addition of sixty-six bars. The piece evokes summer sunshine and bird song with its sparkling roulades.
This is an attractive and appealing disc. The recording quality is very good, with the warm piano sound enhanced by a sympathetic acoustic. The liner notes provide all that one could wish for. Christophe Petit’s championing of these obscure scores is certainly deserving of the highest praise.
Previous review: Ralph Moore