FRANCK Father of the Organ Symphony
As with previous deluxe issues dedicated to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and Charles-Marie Widor, Fugue State Films has (through another crowd-funding campaign) produced what will surely prove to be the most authoritative and comprehensive filmed survey and detailed exploration of César Franck’s organ music. As a character he remains somewhat inscrutable. Although a fair amount of biographical material is dropped into the various features, it is clearly up to the listener/viewer to judge quite how much of Franck’s inner life was reflected in his organ music. What it does reveal is that he was much more than the Pater Seraphicus of legend.
With almost six hours of video to digest, it is best to start with Eric Lebrun’s superbly assembled ‘Life of an Organist’ feature. His engaging delivery is beautifully supported by first-rate visuals captured in the Parisian churches where Franck served, notably Notre-Dame de Lorette, where he was appointed assistant organist in 1847, and Sainte-Clotilde where he was titulaire from 1858 until his death.
The celebrated dozen great organ works that Franck left form an encyclopedia of mid-19th-century French organists’ tastes and expectations. They are all played by David Noël-Hudson on three historically appropriate instruments. Of these, that situated in Saint-Omer’s cathedral enjoys the grandest moments. Assisted by two hard-working (and well wrapped-up) registrants and a discreetly placed heater, it is fascinating to witness the spartan conditions in which this music must first have been played. Noël-Hudson also introduces each piece, unravelling their various complexities and attempting (successfully) to explain Franck’s favourite compositional techniques of melodic extension, canon and the like. However, his commentary can veer towards the flat – unlike his playing, which flows effortlessly and dutifully observes every nuance of the carefully marked scores. He balances poetry with a deep sense of form and also makes a convincing case for a ‘subjective programme’ which cyclically links the late, great Three Chorales of 1890.
Of the other featured players, Jean-Pierre Griveau makes the best out of the modest two-manual choir organ in Orléans Cathedral. The elfin charm of the Poco allegro in F sharp minor (from the late L’organiste anthology) is a particular highlight. Finally, Joris Verdin works his magic (and knees) on five predominantly slow pieces from the same publication on an 1891 Mustel harmonium. If one closes one’s eyes, one could almost be listening to a couple of accordionists playing by a pavement café somewhere in the Latin Quarter. Charmant!