CÉSAR FRANCK: The Complete Organ Works – André Isoir, organ – la dolce volta

by | Sep 1, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

CÉSAR FRANCK: The Complete Organ Works = Fantaisie in A; Fantaisie in C, Op. 16; Priere, Op. 20; Cantabile; Grande Pièce symphonique, Op. 17; Prélude, fugue, et variations, Op 18; Choral No. 1 in E; Choral No. 2 in B Minor; Choral No. 3 in A Minor; Pièce héroique; Final, Op. 21 – André Isoir, organ – la dolce volta LDV 176.8, (2 discs); 73:13; 73:54 (7/14/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****1/2:

First things first. While the album cover states that this is Integrale de l’œuvre d’orgue (“Complete Organ Works”) of Franck, it is, of course, far from it. Not that you’re going to find a complete recording anyway: Franck wrote over a hundred pieces for organ, most of them short liturgical works from late in his life. But the current recording doesn’t even present what’s generally considered Franck’s great works for organ, since it lacks Pastorale, Op. 19, the first of the composer’s Six Pièces. Presumably, this is so la dolce volta could fit the program on two generously filled CDs; I don’t know if the original recording from Calliope contained all six works. But now I’ve noted a lacuna that may trouble the conscientious collector, I must say that I have high praise for this reissue, high praise indeed.

Pianist Stephen Hough has commented that organists sometimes complain that Franck’s organ music is too pianistic, while pianists gripe that his piano works seem too influenced by organ sonorities. The truth of the matter is that Franck was a virtuoso performer on both instruments, and while he started life as a pianist and composer of music for the piano, his many years, from 1847 till his death, serving as organist of three Parisian churches made him intimately familiar with the organ and the timbres and coloristic effects it could produce. For me, Franck’s keyboard music is idiomatic—and idiomatically Franck.

The traits that we consider quintessentially Franckian—cyclic form, chromaticism, surprising modulations and turns of phrase—were cultivated first in Franck’s organ works rather than his other instrumental music. The first of Franck’s great organ works, Six Pièces, was written between 1856 and 1864. The Fantaisie in C, is, like so many of these pieces, a tripartite structure, two slow sections bookending a faster middle section. It’s a work in free sonata form that shows Franck’s ability to balance form and fantasy in a single work. It also shows Franck’s penchant for and command of canonic writing. Just as characteristic is Prélude, fugue, et variations. A direct homage to Bach, it takes a compositional format, with some permutations, that Franck would revisit in his piano works of the 1880s: Prélude, Choral et Fugue and Prélude, Aria et Final. It’s also a good example of Franck’s cyclic technique since the prélude is the basis of the final variations.

Grande pièce symphonique (1863) represents truth in advertising: a truly grand work, it is the forerunner of the organ symphonies of Guilmant, Widor, and Vièrne. The work has a number of similarities to the Symphony in D written years later. Like the Symphony, it’s cast in three movements, the second being an Andante with a skittish, faster central section that serves as a quasi-scherzo. And at the start of the last movement, which reprises in heroic fashion the theme of the first movement, there is a section in which all the foregoing themes return one after the other, à la Beethoven’s Ninth.

Portrait César Franck

César Franck,
by Pierre Petit

Of Trois Pièces (1878), the most striking and most often played by far is Pièce héröique, which has some of the high-flying manner of Grande pièce symphonique. It starts with a strange, inexorable march—half military march, half funeral march—in B minor that finally acquiesces to a gentle chorale-like theme. The two themes alternate until the chorale finally wins the day, rounding off the work in major-key glory.

The three Chorals were Franck’s last compositions, the finest of them, No. 3, completed just before his death. They seem to represent a game of Find That Tune, because the chorale theme doesn’t appear at first and when it does is veiled, seeming to lurk in the shadows of other melodic material and webs of counterpoint. These pieces may not be the easiest to love, except for the grand third Choral, but they represent Franck’s writing for organ at its most sophisticated.

As I hinted earlier, André Isoir’s interpretations of these masterworks are truly commanding. When I began to listen with the Fantaisie in A, I detected some subtle Romantic gestures that organists are less inclined to inject into this music currently—some liberties with dynamics and rubato. But these interpretive gestures, when they occur, are tastefully done and not intrusive. On the other hand, Isoir’s technique is formidable, and his characterization and shaping of this music is always spot-on, from the tenderness he injects in works such as Priere and Cantabile to the dramatic excitement he brings to Grande pièce symphonique and Choral No. 3. This set can sit comfortably beside any interpretations of these works that I know.

A word about the recording venue and recording. Though set down in 1975, the original recording is excellent and has been very well remastered. It seems to be a bit closer miked than some organ recordings that you hear, resulting in real clarity and power, clarity even of those inner voices that sometimes get muddied. One factor is the recording venue, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Luçon, a Gothic cathedral with Romanesque elements completed in the fourteenth century. It’s a relatively small cathedral as cathedrals go, the length of the interior being a little over 200 feet and the height from floor to ceiling about 80. So the engineers didn’t have to battle the really long reverberation times that some of the monster cathedrals present them with. Still, this is a commendable piece of sound engineering.

Finally, while the bass is impressively full, this recording probably won’t rattle your floorboards. And part of that has to do with the organ itself, installed by Cavaillé-Coll in 1857. It lacks a number of the stops found in later Cavaillé-Coll organs, especially ones in the larger cathedrals such as Saint-Sernin (1889) and Saint-Ouen (1890). Also, the organ at Luçon lacks the Principal-basse and Contrebasse ranks that give those more massive instruments their extra bass heft. On the other hand, the Luçon organ is probably closer in design to the organ in Franck’s own Sainte-Clotilde, also installed in 1857. So, you see, it’s all good!

—Lee Passarella

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