CÉSAR FRANCK: The Organ Works – Ben van Oosten, organ – MDG

CÉSAR FRANCK: The Organ Works [complete track list follows] – Ben van Oosten, organ – Musikproduction Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 316 2080-2 (4 discs); 75:11; 73:55; 63:30; 79:30 (8/3/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2

There is a great deal of music here, just under five hours’ worth, and while it is certainly not complete, the healthy selection from Franck’s posthumous works makes this recording nigh indispensable for students and die-hard fans of Franck’s organ music. Note, however, that for those absolute completists among us, there is a six-CD album on the Audite label that is probably as complete as anything compiled by mere mortals can hope to be. It includes some of Franck’s pieces for harmonium (mentioned below) transcribed by Louis Vièrne as well as all (as far as I can tell) of the posthumous collection that van Oosten excerpts. The Audite set is performed by Hans-Eberhard Roß, who plays a modern German instrument, the Goll organ in Memmingen. Some Franckians may frown at that choice, but from what I read, the Goll is magnificent.

For the more casual collector, the mostly short, unpublished liturgical works are not compulsory listening. Yet listened to in batches, they are effective, often uplifting pieces that fill out the portrait we have of Franck as a composer for the organ. A few of these works are substantial, including two of the Offertoires that van Oosten includes. By the way, in his well-written and highly informative notes to the recording, van Oosten corrects a misconception about these posthumous works. They have been confused with the set of pieces for harmonium that Franck was commissioned to write in the last year of his life and which remained incomplete at the time of his death. Instead, the posthumous pieces featured on van Oosten’s discs were written between 1858 and 1863 and collected as Pièces posthumes pour Harmonium ou Orgue a pédales pour l’office ordinaire in 1905. Three of this series were published in 1859 under the title Trois Antiennes. Besides these works, van Oosten supplies more substantial works from earlier in Franck’s career: Pièce en mi bemol majeur (E-flat, 1846), Piece pour Grande Orgue (1854), and Andantino sol mineur (G minor, 1856).

Portrait César Franck

César Franck,
by Pierre Petit

The first is a stately declamation that’s nonetheless bland and conventional compared with the later masterworks. But the piece does have an interesting section toward the middle in which a series of stentorian questions seem to be answered by quiet, uncertain answers on the manuals alone. It reminds me of Franck’s Ce qu’on entend sur le montagne, a windy tone poem written in the same year, based on a Victor Hugo poem that explores man’s loneliness in the face of nature. Maybe some of the same existential questions are posed in both works, more abstractly in the organ piece.

More impressive is Pièce pour Grande Orgue. This may be the first work Franck composed in which we get a foretaste of his later greatness. It’s a stirring composition that I’m sure will visit my CD player often—quite a find. Very different is the quiet yet playful Andantino. Both works explore tone color more effectively than the Pièce en mi bemole majeur and hint much more strongly at the Franck to come.

When we move on to familiar ground—Franck’s masterpieces Six Pièces, Trois Pièces, and Trois Chorals—I find some of van Oosten’s interpretations less than fully compelling. One issue is the matter of tempi. Van Oosten plays all this music more slowly, sometimes substantially more slowly, than the organists I’ve consulted for comparison, Michael Murray on Telarc and André Isoir on a la dolce volta recording I recently reviewed. The timings of van Oosten’s Fantaisie in C, Grande Pièce symphonique, Fantaisie in A, and Choral No. 2 are all around two minutes longer than Murray’s (and, for the most part, Isoir’s). Now, I try not to police tempi when I listen to recordings, but if there is a discrepancy of two minutes in a piece lasting much less than twenty, it seems to me someone has gone astray interpretively. And in fact, I find that in all these pieces there is less drama and tension than in the performances of Murray and Isoir. Listened to in isolation, van Oosten’s readings have their merits. He trusts the composer and doesn’t take the kind of interpretive liberties that spoil a performance, plus these performances are clearly the work of a true artist. Also, the more lyrical pieces—Pastorale, Prière, Cantabile—are beautifully sustained in van Oosten’s readings. But mostly, when I want to listen to the late masterworks, I’ll turn more often to other performances.

Despite some clouding of the middle register, MDG’s engineering is generally excellent, especially given the venue, the massive confines of Saint-Ouen, largest Romanesque cathedral in the world. The organ that Aristide Cavaillé-Coll designed for such a vast space is equally grand, with twelve pedal stops, which you will certainly appreciate in this recording. Perhaps in choosing slow tempi across the board, van Oosten hoped to compensate for the cathedral’s long reverberation time. Be that as it may, this is a valuable collection, not least for faithfully capturing what Charles-Marie Widor dubbed a “Michelangelo” among organs.

—Lee Passarella

Track List:
CD 1
Pièce en mi bémol majeur
Pièce pour Grand Orgue
Andantino sol mineur

Pièces posthumes (selection):
Offertoire fa mineur
Lento ré mineur
Allegretto non troppo mi bémol majeur
Offertoire mi bémol majeur
Andantino la bémol majeur
Allegro moderato ré bémol majeur
Offertoire fa dièse mineur
Andantino mi bémol majeur
Allegretto ré majeur
Offertoire sol mineur
Prélude pour l’Ave Maris Stella
Andantino ré majeur

CD 2
Pièces posthumes (cont.):
Offertoire si majeur
Allegretto non troppo 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
Allegretto
Lent et très soutenu

Six Pièces:
Fantaisie, Op. 16
Grande Pièce symphonique, Op. 17

CD 3
Six Pièces (cont.):
Prélude, Fugue et Variations, Op. 18
Pastorale, Op. 19
Prière, Op. 20
Final, Op. 21
Offertoire sur un noël breton
Fantaisie ut majeur

CD 4
Trois Pièces:
Fantaisie
Cantabile
Pièce héroïque

Trois Chorals:
Choral No. 1
Choral No. 2
Choral No. 3

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