FRANCK: Prelude, choral et fugue in B minor; Prelude, aria et final in E Major; Prelude, fugue et variation in B minor; Choral pour grand orgue No. 2 in B minor – Nikolai Lugansky, piano – Harmonia mundi HMM 902642, 66:35 (2/28/20) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
Ever since my having heard César Franck’s 1884 Prelude, choral et Fugue from pianist Witold Malcuzynski, then from Artur Rubinstein and Alfred Cortot, the work has held a certain spellbinding allure difficult to dismiss. Looking to Bach and Liszt at once, the piece possesses a Janus-like fascination, all the while emanating Franck’s idiosyncratic, cyclical style. Franck augmented the traditional diptych of prelude and fugue by inserting a middle movement – whether chorale or variation – that would fulfill and, as it were, infiltrate either side of the music enfolding it. The step-wise progressions, sweeping arpeggios, and drooping appoggiaturas and harmonies each contribute to a tightly woven, meditative fabric. As in the music of Liszt, the seeming improvisational aspects of the work prove no less organic to the unity of conception.
Nikolai Lugansky (rec. July 2019) plays upon a resonant Steinway D whose lustrous tone in recording owes much to Maximilien Ciup. Listening to the latter part of the Choral, just prior to the entry of the Fugue, we can hear virtuoso scales we know from the G minor Concerto of Saint-Saens. We note early Franck’s reliance on the motifs from Bach – via Liszt – the chromatic line from Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and the passing allusions to the Bach’s Crucifixus from the B minor Mass, and surely the key of B minor obsesses the composer. No less Wagner provides a recurrent trope in the tolling bell from Parsifal. Whether such ‘academic’ wisdom intensifies our appreciation of the sonic mix remains debatable, but by the last pages of the work, Lugansky immerses us in a passionate rendition of the fugue’s stretti and the chorale’s plaintive ringing that sweeps us away.
The Prelude, Arie et Final (1887) seems woven from much the same cloth as its predecessor, though its emotional content might appear mundane, even if its motifs exploit the Bach and Wagner notions of crucifixion and transformation. The middle section, Aria, embraces the human voice as well as the raptures of the church and the organ sonority, given its thundering bass lines. The opening Prelude proceeds in four-part harmony, chromatic and polyphonic. The development of the passing, chromatic inter-weavings suggests a sonata movement as well as a hybrid, martial fantasia. If Lugansky lacks a quality, it might be subtlety, given his often stentorian assertions in the manner of Sviatoslav Richter. What does surprise us comes in the last pages, when Franck indulges in Neapolitan harmony that obviously appeals to Lugansky’s romantic temperament.
A tripartite structure, the Aria moves cantabile in three themes, one of which has a Wagnerian tenor.
The outer motifs enjoy the quality of a simple lullaby, shimmering and glassy. The fugal subject of the opening Prelude now becomes a dark, chromatically agitated rumble to open the Final. The constant whirl of arpeggios soon reveals the placid theme of the Aria, undergirded by the passing rumbles and agitated polyphony. Much of the movement plays like a torrential Liszt etude, so it would not surprise us if Lugansky sojourned into Liszt more definitively. Each of the ingredients of this cyclic web proceeds maestoso, enriched by a feeling of celestial aspiration. Yet the inevitable, organic conclusion will opt for a soft, luminously tranquil conclusion, almost a single tear.
I first heard Franck’s 1868 Prelude, Fugue and Variation from a recording for CBS by E. Power Biggs, who conveyed the music’s opposing lightness and stern majesty. Dedicated to fellow organ master Saint-Saens, the opening section exploits simplicity and clarity, relying as it does on the oboe stop. A bridge passage takes us to the relatively linear and forthright Fugue, which Lugansky renders in solemn, noble terms. Here, Lugansky reveals an intimacy, vocal and inward, that had not been so evident prior. Running figures take us to the Variation (Andantino), the opening tune now superimposed upon elastic 16ths. The lovely cantilena seems to float or lilt as it proceeds, moving with an elastic grace towards B Major. Rarely have Bach and the Gallic or Belgian traditions in music so fluidly coalesced into a vision of spiritual harmony.
To conclude, Lugansky plays a piano version of the organ Chorale in B minor, modeled after Bach’s massive Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. Franck wanted to leave his three chorales as a significant contribution to his posterity, and this composition of thickly textured variations, we hear the influence of both Bach and Liszt. Lugansky plays his own transcription, and at moments, the sound world gravitates towards Busoni and his especial passing dissonance, even more than to Liszt. We hear polyphonic effects that the prior compositions seem to have anticipated, with the upper register’s chorale contour’s appearing to sail into the organ’s rarified atmosphere. The writing becomes virtuosic and voluptuous, a concession to the Hungarian Abbe’s influence of keyboard Romanticism. The last section, 1st tempo ma un poco meno lento, resolves into a calm sea of mist and inward repose.