Tuesday 16 October 2012

Franck’s complete organ music on Audite in performances by Hans-Eberhard Roß that are unlikely to be surpassed

Of those composers active just before Debussy the names of Saint Saëns, Fauré and Franck stand out. Yet how much of their music do we hear with any frequency. Each of these composers tends to be remembered by just a handful of works.

Such is certainly the case with César Franck (1822 to 1890) who is generally remembered for his Symphony in D, Prelude Choral and Fugue, Symphonic Variations and perhaps his chamber works. Organ enthusiasts will, of course, know of his larger works for organ such as Six Pièces pour Grand Orgue (1862).

Now from Audite www.audite.de organist Hans-Eberhard Roß http://www.kirchenmusik-memmingen.de/sites/Ross.htm  brings us the complete organ works of Franck.

21.413 (6 CD)
This new 6 CD box brings together the recordings previously released on three double CDs. And what fine recordings they are. Hans-Eberhard Roß plays the Goll organ of St Martins, Memmingen, where he is music director and Cantor, which proves to be an ideal instrument for the music, much of which was written for the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Sainte Clotilde where Franck was organist for over 30 years. Such is the completeness of this set that there are a number of premiere recordings.

CD1 commences with Pièce en mi bémol (1846), possibly Franck’s earliest organ work, an attractive piece of some substance making a striking opening to the set. Pièce pour Grand Orgue (1854) shows the more mature Franckian style in a breathtakingly fine performance. The Andantino in G minor (1856) is a lighter piece where Roß’s phrasing and choice of registration allows the piece to maintain its interest.

The Goll organ sounds magnificent in the Fantaisie in C major where, though often elegiac in nature, it builds to a great climax. This is just one of three versions of this Fantaisie that are recorded on this set. Cinq Pièces pour Harmonium (1856) are transcribed here for Grand Organ by Louis Vierne. Roß never allows the music to meander or become static no doubt again because of his astute choice of registrations. We should be grateful that Vierne allowed this beautiful music to be brought to a wider audience through his transcription.

After the brief Offertoire in A major (1858), there is the second version of the Fantaisie in C major allowing us an opportunity to compare the various versions brought together for the first time. The Quasi Marcia (1865) that concludes this disc is another attractive work originally intended for Harmonium and transcribed for this performance by Hans-Eberhard Roß.

Franck’s Six Pièces pour Grand Orgue (1859-1863) fill CD2 and include a Fantaisie Op.16, a work drawn from the Fantaisie in C major, where the range of the Goll organ is really allowed to show itself and Roß’s playing conveys all the beautiful nuances of the music. Grande Pièce Symphonique Op.17 (1863) at twenty three minutes is the longest piece here and is a gloriously effective work originally called ‘Symphony’ and which appears to have opened up new horizons for Franck leading eventually to his D minor Symphony of 1886-88.

The Prélude, Fugue et Variation Op.18 is the perfect foil to the Grande Pièce with Roß maintaining perfect tempi, dynamics and registrations with wonderful flow and articulation, with a lovely tune permeating the work. The Pastorale Op.19 has a central dance like theme whilst the Prière Op.20 is a solemn and stately piece that seems to have had a poor reception in the past. Franck nevertheless brings a depth that is quite absorbing, a quality brought out particular well by this organist.

The Final Op.21 is an organ showpiece intended for Franck’s own Cavaillé-Coll organ and, in this performance, works perfectly on the Goll instrument. Dedicated to Lefébure-Wely, there is some phenomenal playing from Roß.

CD3 contains thirty nine works of Franck’s Pièces Posthumes pour Harmonium ou Orgue a Pèdales pour L’Office Ordinaire (L’Organiste II – Part I) (1858-1863). These are often odd pieces that don’t progress beyond a bar or two explained by the fact that Franck wrote some of the pieces for an organist friend as guidance for use of his village organ. The extremely short duration of some pieces suggests that they were intended to be developed or improvised on. This certainly must be the case in the 18 second long Amen in D major.

Included are an Offertoire in F minor, an Offertoire in C minor and an Elevation in A major. The Offertoire works in this collection were probably written for Franck’s own use hence their more substantial length. All are played here with brilliance and flair. The set concludes with three longer pieces, a Grand Chœur in C minor, a grand maestoso beautifully played, Offertoire pour la Messe de Minuit in D minor, a quiet  reflective lento and the concluding Offertoire in G minor a grand finale fabulously played by Hans-Eberhard Roß.

Pièces Posthumes pour Harmonium ou Orgue a Pèdales pour L’Office Ordinaire from L’Organiste II – Part II (1858-1863) that opens CD4 consists of seven pieces that are more substantial. There is a lively Sortie in D major, an Offertoire in F minor brilliantly played with fine contrasts, a lovely Allegro Moderato in D flat major, two further Offortoires, the B Major  having wonderful swagger and the charming Offertoire sur un Noel Breton. Version III of the Fantaisie in C major follows before the Entrée pour Harmonium an attractive little work of just under three minutes.

The Paris Exhibition of 1878 called on Franck to give a series of concerts at the Palais du Trocadéro, which contained a large organ built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Aside from his improvisations Franck also played more formal works including the three pieces forming the Trois Pièces pour Grand Orgue (1878). The first of these pieces is the Fantaisie in A major, a dark thoughtful work quite densely written in which Roß brings out the underlying emotion of the work really effectively. The Cantabile is a long drawn melody concluding with a gentle canon whilst the Pièce Héroïque has a rhythmic theme leading to a rousing chorale, superbly played. This CD concludes with two short works, Petit Offertoire pour Harmonium and an untitled Andante quasi lento pour Harmonium, little known but most effective.

CD5 comprises Pièces pour Orgue ou Harmonium (L’Organiste I – Part I) (1890) from the last year of Franck’s life. This consists of six works, each comprising of seven short pieces that make up a satisfying whole.

Firstly there is the 7 Pièces in C major and C minor which includes a wonderful concluding Offertoire. The 7 Pièces in D flat major and C sharp minor are of a more reflective nature and all beautifully played, whilst the 7 Pièces in D major and D minor ‘Pour le temps de Noël’ contain a short stirring Quasi allegro, a very ecclesiastical sounding ‘Chant de la Creuse’ and a Sortie ou Offertoire that makes a fine conclusion.

The 7 Pièces in E flat major and E flat minor include a gentle andantino and an equally gentle quasi lento. Roß’s lightness of touch enables these works to really shine. The concluding Offertoire is a glorious and subtly varied piece enhanced by the sensitivity of Roß’s playing and choice of registrations.

The 7 Pièces in E minor and E major include a stately, thoughtful prière and a concluding Offertoire ou communion, a poco lento, that provides music that is full of subtle detail. The concluding 7 Pièces in F major and F minor have an opening Allegretto that allows the Goll organ to show more of what it can do in the hands of this master organist. In the lento, Roß draws some lovely textures whilst the final grand sortie gives the Goll organ its head, with some great playing by Roß.

CD6 has the Pièces pour Orgue ou Harmonium (L’Organiste I – Part II) (1890) consisting of three sets of seven pieces. The first are 7 Pièces in F sharp minor and G flat major with an andantino ‘Air Béarnais’  that has playing full of subtle variety, a poco allegro with an intricate little dancing theme beautifully done by Roß and a restrained Offertoire funèbre to end. The 7 Pièces in G major and G minor ‘Pour le temps de Noël’ have an interestingly varied poco allegretto before the hymn like poco lento ‘Vieux Noël’. There is a cheerful and lively allegretto ‘noël angevin’ with a superb choice of registrations, a quietly introverted quasi lento and a stirring sortie – allegro to end. Here Roß draws some lovely sounds from the organ.

The final of these sets, 7 Pièces in A flat major and G sharp minor, opens with a poco maestoso, rather tentative in its nature, an aptly named allegretto amabile that is light and jolly, as is the andantino.  There is a grave sounding lento and a concluding sortie that is less striking than those in the preceding works, being more restrained.

This phenomenal set concludes with the tremendously difficult Trois Chorals pour Grand Orgue (1890). Choral I in E major is a beautifully flowing piece that nearly halfway through suddenly opens up with a grand flourish. The gentler music returns but speeds up to a majestic climax, magnificently played by Roß.

Choral II in B minor slowly builds to a complex harmony with a central climax providing some wonderful playing. This is an attractively varied piece with some amazing playing of the complex passages. There is a tremendous crescendo towards the end, before the pianissimo coda.

Choral III in A minor has a terrific opening with some spectacular playing from Roß. Sometimes there seems little respite for the organist with one new challenge after another.  Halfway through, the music becomes quiet and meandering before the music builds to a dissonant climax.

The Goll organ of St Martin’s Memmingen is ideally suited to this repertoire and the acoustic just right, without too much reverberation. The recording is particularly fine with just the right amount of depth. There are excellent notes on the composer and the music with full specifications for the Goll organ.  Audite even provide details of the registrations used and extracts from a film (in German) about the construction of the Goll organ via their website www.audite.de

Such is my enthusiasm for this set that I could have written at even greater length about these fabulous performances but I fear I have gone on too much already.

These performances are unlikely to be matched let alone surpassed in the near future. Hans-Eberhard Roß is a superb musician and anyone who failed to catch these recordings when first released should delay no longer.

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