CESAR FRANCK: Les Beatitudes – Keith Lewis, tenor/Scot Weir, tenor/Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano/Juan Vasle, bass-baritone/Reinhard Hagen, bass/Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano/John Cheek, bass-baritone/Ingeborg Danz, contralto/Gilles Cachemaille, bass-baritone/Gaechinger Kantorai Stuttgart/Stuttgart Radio-Symphony Orchestra/Helmuth Rilling
Hanssler Classic 98.548 (2 CDs) 61:08; 68:01 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Cesar Franck completed his most ambitious work, the oratorio Les Beatitudes 1869-1879, though its premier came after his death in 1891. The work of an ardently religious man, this massive oratorio sets out to provide a musical expression for Christ’s eternal message–according to Matthew 5, 3-12)–the Sermon on the Mount. Scored for considerable resources including six singers, choir, organ, and a large orchestra, Franck’s musical vision rises to the level of his exalted subject matter. The aesthetic problem Franck faces seems parallel to that of Dvorak for his Stabat Mater: how to generate musical drama from relatively static adagios and texts of spiritual contemplation. The music divides into eight sections, inverting the second and third Beatitudes, but following the wording and order of the Bible. Christ (Gilles Cachemaille) is represented by a bass-baritone surrounded by an eight-bar leitmotif, who assures us that misery on earth shall beget a better future in Heaven. Near the end of each section, the Heavenly Chorus or Vox Christi informs the devout how they rise above misfortune. In the Sixth Beatitude, Franck creates a New Testament Bible scene, wherein Pagan Women, Jewish Women, three Pharisees, and the Angel of Death confer, and all are counseled by Jesus that the pure of heart shall see God. Satan appears in the course of the drama, only to realize the limits of his power. If the work has any spiritual forbears other than Beethoven, it could well be Liszt’s Christus of 1872; even the key of F-sharp Major (for the vice of Jesus) is Liszt’s favorite key for transcendence.
Recorded in 1990 at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, the performance gains resonance and emotional power from Rilling’s fine soloists and powerful ensemble in chorus and orchestra. The Fourth Beatitude, describing those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, becomes quite animated, a real text-painting of “a last flame that nothing can extinguish.” Many of Franck’s colorist elements–as in the opening of the Fourth Beatitude–the use of woodwinds and harp, for example, prefigure aspects of Impressionism. Keith Lewis intones each of the tenor parts with gentle compassion, setting the stage for the dialectic of earthly affliction and spiritual relief. The Fifth Beatitude, quite dramatically, depicts a battle scene, as the afflicted take up arms, “Fortified by our extreme misery.” When the voice of Jesus disperses the angry tide, the writing more than reminds us of Friar Laurence in Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette Symphonie, vanquishing the enmity of the two warring families. Thus, the Heavenly Chorus intones, “Blessed are the merciful,” and the Angel of Pardon admonishes us to “Renounce hatred. . . [that]. . .your soul learn holy pity.” The last section is the longest, having the Mater Dolorosa offer her son to restore the spiritual purity of humanity. Though lacking in cumulative drama, Les Beatitudes boasts many individual moments of resplendent beauty and harmonic color, and Rilling makes what dramatic sense he can–given the paucity of verbal imagination on the part of librettist Madame J. Colomb–of what could be a study in religious monotone.