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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 [4 CDs: 292:06]

Although Belgian by birth, César Franck lived most of his life in Paris. He only began seriously composing for the organ when in his thirties, around the same time that he took up a post as organist at the Parisian Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in 1858, a position he held for the rest of his life. He’d already learned the ropes of his trade in some of the smaller churches of the city. Aside from this he became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, with a list of famous students that reads like a who's who - Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Guillaume Lekeu and Henri Duparc. Franck was a gifted improviser, and travelled France demonstrating the newly-built organs of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll; the two became friends. This new release from MDG focuses on the composer's twelve major organ works: Six Pièces, Op. 16-21 (1856-64), Trois Pièces (1878) and Trois Chorals (1890). These are supplemented by some early endeavours, several of which are liturgical in origin. These initial efforts are of immense value in indicating the direction Franck would take in his later compositions.
In the Six Pièces Op. 16-21, Franck breaks new ground by exploring the full potential of the organ's registration and dynamics, none more so than in the Grande Pièce Symphonique, Op. 17, which is the most substantial work in the set, at almost 29 minutes duration. This mighty edifice sets the pattern for the later organ symphonies of Widor and Vierne. Launched in fairly subdued style, it's not too long before the music develops some dramatic intent. Van Oosten's terracing of dynamics fully captures the potency of the narrative. By contrast, the second section introduces a graceful melody, both tender and serene. The piece ends in celebratory mood with a grand fugue. There's no doubt that this work truly displays the impressive credentials of the Saint-Ouen organ. Many will know the Prélude, Fugue et Variation Op.18 from a later piano transcription. I prefer the organ version. Franck dedicated it to Saint-Saëns. It opens with a seductive theme which moves naturally towards a sombre fugue, which in turn links with the variations. Van Oosten maintains a wonderful unbroken flow, which is comfortably paced and embroidered with some captivating registrations. Pastorale, Op. 19 evokes a bucolic scene, whilst Prière, Op.20 is given an ardent reading which mines the music's poetic and spiritual depths.

The Trois Pièces date from 1878 and, in the words of Vincent d'Indy, were "written expressly for the inauguration of the colossal organ (a Cavaillé-Coll instrument) at the Trocadéro during the exhibition of 1878....". A devotional Cantabile sits centre stage, flanked by a noble Fantasie and the ever popular Pièce Héroïque. The latter is an ingenious creation, splendid and weighty, and van Oosten's performance certainly packs a punch. The three Chorales were written just two months before the composer died, in 1890. Shortly before their completion he'd been involved in a road accident, which was to prove fatal several months later. Each is a large-scale fantasia. A hymn-like character pervades the first in E major. I love the way van Oosten cumulatively builds up the sound to mighty proportions at the end, it has tremendous impact. The second in B minor is a dark passacaglia, whilst No. 3 in A minor opens with a Bach-like toccata, forming an impressive climax to the trilogy.

The remainder of the set consists of early pieces, which could be considered apprenticeship works for the later masterpieces. Franck's earliest exist in manuscript only and are untitled. Pièce en mi bémol was penned in 1846, three years after he had completed his studies at the Paris Conservatory.   It remained unpublished until 1973. Another, Pièce pour Grand Orgue, dates from 1854 and was performed by the composer at the inauguration of the new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache, Paris. It's a fantasy, improvisatory and dramatic in character. We’re offered a selection of short liturgical pieces from a collection of forty-four the composer wrote between 1858 and 1863 and later published in 1905 by the Parisian publisher Enoch, entitled Pièces posthumes pour harmonium ou orgue à pédales pour l'office ordinaire. These were pared down to thirty by Charles Tournemire in a 1930’s subsequent edition. The larger scaled Offertoires are some of the finest examples from the set. A favorite of mine is the Offertoire pour la Messe de minuit in which there's an enchanting flute-like improvisation weaving a magical web around  two familiar hymn-like melodies,  'Nous voici dans la ville' and ‘Quoi, ma voisine, es-tu fâchée?’. Then there's the diverse range of emotions explored from the upbeat B major Offertoire to the rather solemn F sharp minor. The Sortie (Grand Choeur) is a delight, and could provide a concluding voluntary to any celebratory service.

In his own well-written and informative liner notes, Van Oosten explains his choice of instrument. Franck's Sainte-Clotilde organ has undergone several alterations over the years and no longer provides an authentic sound for this music. Instead, he’s chosen  L'Orgue à Michel-Ange in St. Ouen's Abbey in Rouen, a fine example of  one of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll's instruments, preserved in its original state. The organ sounds glorious with clarity of detail and spacial perspective marvellously captured by the MDG engineers, and you feel you are in the church with the sound enveloping you. Van Oosten's registration choices are imaginative, and convey a true spectrum of colour. Equally impressive is the wide dynamic range he achieves. The all-important organ specifications are included in the booklet.  This, together with a 6 CD set on the Audite label, featuring the organist Hans-Eberhard Ross, is the most comprehensive collection in the catalogue at present, and is testimony to MDG's commitment to good production values. I haven’t heard the Audite set to be able to offer any comparisons.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [75:11]
Pièce en Mi B mol Majeur (1846)
Pièce pour Grand Orgue (1854)
Andantino Sol Mineur (1856)
Pièces Posthumes (séléction) Offertoire fa Mineur
Lento en Ré Mineur
Allegretto Non Troppo Mi B mol Majeur
Offertoire Mi B mol Majeur
Andantino La B mol Majeur
Allegro Moderato en B mol Majeur
Offertoire Fa Di se Mineur
Andantino Mi B mol Majeur
Allegretto Ré Majeur
Offertoire Sol Mineur
Prélude pour L’Ave Maris Stella
Andantino Ré Majeur

CD 2 [73:55]
Pièces Posthumes (cont.): Offertoire Si Majeur
Allegretto Non Troppo en Ré Majeur
Elévation La Majeur
Andantino Ut Majeur
Grand Choeur Ut Majeur
Offertoire pour La Messe De Minuit
Sortie (Grand Choeur) Ré Majeur
Trois Antiennes - Quasi Lento
Lent et très soutenu
Six Pièces (1856-1864): Fantaisie Op. 16
Grande Pièce Symphonique Op. 17

CD 3 [63:30]
Six Pièces (cont.): Prelude, Fugue et Variation Op.18
Pastorale Op.19
Prière Op.20
Final Op.21
Offertoire sur un No l Breton (1867)
Fantaisie Ut Majeur (1868 Version)

CD 4 [79:30]
Trois Pièces (1878): Fantaisie
Pièce Héroique
Trois Chorals (1890): Choral No. 1
Choral No. 2
Choral No. 3



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