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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
The Organ Works
Ben van Oosten (organ)
rec. 2017, Cavaillé-Coll Organ Saint-Ouen, Rouen, France
MDG 3162080-2 [4 CDs: 292:06]

For most people who like organ music, when it comes to the complete organ music of César Franck we tend to think of it coming in a two CD set, such as Marie-Claire Alaine on Apex (256461428-2), Jean Guillou on Brilliant (92282) or David Sanger on BIS (BIS-CD-214/215), so the first question to be asked is why this set is on four discs? The answer is simple, this set includes the Pièces posthumes, those pieces that were mainly composed in Franck’s youth and never published in the composer’s lifetime and which therefore, do not appear as part of his recognised oeuvre.

This is not the first time that these works have been recorded, with Rob Barnett giving Joris Verdin’s recording for Ricercar (RIC324) a favourable review in 2011, despite his admission that he is not an organ buff, a set that I have had on my watch list for quite a while. Rob described these unpublished works as “Introducing these fresh and sweet little pieces which add immeasurably to the church service repertoire and will win many new friends”. I don’t know whether “fresh and sweet” would be the term I would use to describe them, with the opening three pieces on the first disc, the ‘Pièce en mi bémol majeur’, the ‘Pièce pour Grand Orgue’ and the ‘Andantino sol mineur’ all making a strong case for performance; they are bold and show a strong link with the well-known pieces that come later in this set. Ben van Oosten plays them a lot slower than Verdin does in his recording, over two and a half minutes for the first of these pieces alone; this gives them a grandeur here in this recording, something that might be missing from the Verdin with his quicker tempos, I will just have to wait to compare.

For me the issue with this recording of the Pièces posthumes is the word ‘Selection’; why when there was the chance to finally have a complete organ works, or as near complete as possible, of César Franck, have MDG and Ben van Oosten stopped short of doing so? Perhaps it is, as Rob also points out in his review of the Ricercar set, that many are still only in manuscript and they might be too fragile now to use, but I believe that an opportunity has been missed here. When listening to the ‘Offertoire sol mineur’ (CD 1/13), the ‘Offertoire si majeur’ (CD 2/1) or the exciting ‘Sortie (Grand Choeur) ré majeur’ (CD 2/7), it becomes clear how important these works are; they are not just development pieces but important additions to the composer’s organ oeuvre and should be treated as such. This set left me longing for more of the Pièces posthumes, so I will have to look harder to find a copy of Verdin’s set or hope that van Oosten records the rest of the pieces.

When it comes to the ‘usual’ organ music, the ‘Six Pièces’, the ‘Trois Pièces’ and the ‘Trois Chorals’, Ben van Oosten is again a little on the slow side, with all three of the organists being around the same speed as each other, and in the case of the ‘Six Pièces’ as recorded by Alaine and Sanger, they break up the ‘Fantaisie’, the ‘Grande Pièce symphonique’ and the ‘Prélude, Fugue et Variation’ into their constituent parts, giving each its own index point, more so Alaine. This is a useful addition but not essential, especially when the playing and the recorded sound is as good as it is here. I particularly like van Oosten’s riveting performance of the ‘Grande Pièce symphonique’ and his more meditative approach to the ‘Prélude, Fugue et Variation’, which has always been a favourite piece of mine whether played as here on the organ, or in the version for piano with Alice Ader (FUG 509), and the ‘Pastorale’, here the slower speeds adds to the clarity of the piece. Disc three concludes with two pieces new to me, the rather charming ‘Offertoire sur un noël breton’ of 1867 for organ or harmonium and the more robust ‘Fantaisie ut majeur’ in the version from 1868.

The final disc of the set brings us the other two great sets, the ‘Trois Pièces’ which Franck premiered on October 1, 1878 on the new Cavaillé-Coll Organ of the Palais du Trocadéro which had been built for the Paris World Exhibition, and the ‘Trois Chorals’ which he composed in his final year. Of the ‘Trois Pièces’, although the ‘Pièce héroïque’ is by far the most popular, (I have heard it played live twice, once in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on its Mighty Willis organ and once in Oxford on a smaller but still effective instrument), it is the central Cantabile that I have always found to be my personal favourite, even though I have not had the chance to hear it performed live. It acts as a kind of foil to the other two pieces, with its slower tempo and quieter passages differing from the brighter more flamboyant passage work of the other two pieces; yet I still find it the most rewarding, especially when given time to breathe as by van Oosten here. The ‘Trois Chorals’ were composed only a few months before Franck’s death on November 8, 1890 and, as van Oosten’s impressive notes state “constitute his musical and spiritual legacy”. They form a fitting climax to this set, especially in the way that van Oosten ramps up the intensity of the final toccata section of the Third Choral.

Ben van Oosten plays wonderfully throughout this recording, but especially in the slower and quieter passages where his control of his instrument is excellent; here there is a depth of tone that I have rarely heard. This is partly due to van Oosten’s choice of instrument. He explains in his excellent notes that he has chosen the Cavaillé-Coll Organ of Saint-Ouen in Rouen rather than Franck’s own instrument in Paris due to the original condition of the instrument, with the organ of Sainte-Clotilde having undergone more than one period of restoration over the years, which means that it no longer provides an authentic sound for Franck’s music. It is also down to his willingness to allow the music to develop, with every note being played with great clarity. Yes, van Oosten’s performance might be the slowest I know, but he never outstays his welcome and he has the ability to bring the very best from both the music and his instrument. As already stated, Van Oosten’s notes are excellent, he gives details on the composer, his compositional style and all the pieces recorded here. The engineers of Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm should receive a special mention, as the recorded sound is truly excellent and cannot be faulted, from the lowest and quietest sections to the loudest, every note is produced with clarity and precision, making this one of the finest produced discs of organ music I have heard. I thought hard and very nearly gave this set the accolade of Recording of the Month, and would have if it wasn’t for the word ‘Selections’, as frustratedly I want to hear Ben van Oosten play those pieces that would make this a complete set of César Franck’s complete organ music.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [75:11]

1 Pièce en mi bémol majeur (1846)
2 Pièce pour Grand Orgue (1854)
3 Andantino sol mineur (1856)
Pièces posthumes (Selection)
4 Offertoire fa mineur
5 Lento ré mineur
6 Allegretto non troppo mi bémol majeur
7 Offertoire mi bémol majeur
8 Andantino la bémol majeur
9 Allegro moderato ré bémol majeur
10 Offertoire fa dièse mineur
11 Andantino mi bémol majeur
12 Allegretto ré majeur
13 Offertoire sol mineur
14 Prélude pour l’Ave Maris Stella
15 Andantino ré majeur
CD 2 [73:55]
Pièces posthumes (cont.)
1 Offertoire si majeur
2 Allegretto non troppo ré majeur
3 Elévation la majeur
4 Andantino ut majeur
5 Grand Choeur ut majeur
6 Offertoire pour la Messe de minuit
7 Sortie (Grand Choeur) ré majeur
Trois Antiennes
8 Quasi lento
9 Allegretto
10 Lent et très soutenu
Six Pièces (1856-1864)
11 Fantaisie Op. 16
12 Grande Pièce symphonique Op. 17
CD 3 [63:30]
Six Pièces (cont.)
1 Prélude, Fugue et Variation Op. 18
2 Pastorale Op. 19
3 Prière Op. 20
4 Final Op. 21
5 Offertoire sur un noël breton (1867)
6 Fantaisie ut majeur (1868 version)
CD 4 [79:30]
Trois Pièces (1878)
1 Fantaisie
2 Cantabile
3 Pièce héroïque
Trois Chorals (1890)
4 Choral No. 1
5 Choral No. 2
6 Choral No. 3


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