COMPLETE ORGAN WORKS
Hans-Eberhard Roß (org)
AUDITE 21413 (6 CDs: 411:46)
When it comes to the organ, I think it’s safe to say that César Franck is the most important composer since Bach, and here we have a survey of Franck’s organ music so complete that it would take an entire page to list the entire contents of these six discs in standard
headnote format. In fact, there’s not another collection in existence this complete—not Jean Guillou’s, Marie-Claire Alain’s, Anthony Newman’s, or anyone else’s—since whole discs full of items here are flagged as being premiere recordings, premiere recordings for organ, premiere complete recordings, or premiere complete recordings for organ. So, I have decided to describe the set’s contents on a disc-by-disc basis. Let me forewarn the reader, though, that this is a release dedicated to the doggedly determined among lovers of organ music in general and Franck’s organ music in particular.
Organist Hans-Eberhard Roß performs all 142 pieces on a single instrument, the Goll organ at St. Martin’s Church in Memmingen, Germany. I haven’t been able to find any detailed information on the organ builder, but the enclosed booklet gives the following specifications for the organ: built in 1998, it has four manuals plus pedal, controlling 62 registers. The recordings were made between 2004 and 2005 and were originally released in three two-disc sets in SACD. The boxed-up, six-disc set that came to me for review was on standard, two-channel CDs.
One criticism I will lodge about the presentation is this: the track listings for every piece give the date it was composed, the date it was published, and which of nine editions Roß uses. This last bit of information about the editions may be of interest to the musicologist or scholar studying Franck’s organ works, but more interesting to the general listener, I think, would have been a concordance of stops and registrations used for each piece, something I’ve seen in the notes to other organ recordings, and something that ought, I think, to be material to an undertaking of this seriousness.
Disc 1 starts off with a first-time recording of
Pièce en mi bémol
; i.e., Piece in E♭. Of course, you’d have to listen to it to know if it was major or minor, but I’ll save you the effort. It’s more or less both, opening with a chord progression that eerily anticipates the ear-curling pronouncement at the beginning of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. This is followed by another early work,
Pièce pour Grand Orgue
. It’s not asterisked as a premiere recording but is nonetheless absent from current listings except for this version. Several more early works fill the first disc, all dating from between 1854 and 1856. There are five pieces by Franck originally written for harmonium and transcribed for organ by Louis Vierne, and this is their first time on record. Also a first on record is a first version of a
in C Major. Its second version, apparently not a first on record, is also included on the disc. Roß, himself, has transcribed the harmonium piece,
, op. 22, and plays it here for the first time on organ.
If it’s mainly a CD of Franck’s big organ hits you want, you would be happy with just disc 2. They’re all there in one place: the
in C Major, op. 16, the
Grand Pièce Symphonique
, op. 17, the
Prélude, Fugue, et Variation
, op. 18, the
, op. 19,
, op. 20, and Final, op. 21.
Disc 3 contains no fewer than 39 short pieces collected under the heading of
Posthumous Pieces for Harmonium or Organ with Pedal for L’Office Ordinaire
. This spills over onto disc 4, which contains another seven pieces that are part of the same collection. The fourth disc is then filled out by
Three Pieces for Grand Organ
, and an
piece, that last two of which were both originally for harmonium. The entire contents of discs 3 and 4, with the exception of the
Three Pieces for Grand Organ
, are flagged with three asterisks (***), referencing the fact that they are heard here for the first time complete on organ.
Disc 5 and almost all of disc 6 are occupied by Franck’s answer to Bach’s
, the sets of
Pieces for Organ or Harmonium.
The number seven must have held some mystical significance for Franck because there are nine sets of these pieces, each containing seven numbers, beginning with
7 Pieces in C Major and C Minor
, progressing to
7 Pieces in D♭-Major and C♯-Minor
, then to
7 Pieces in D Major and D Minor
, which he subtitles,
Pour le temps de Noël
, and so on. The cycle stops after the
7 Pieces in A♭-Major and G♯-Minor
, leaving the keys of A, B♭, and B unexplored. There’s nothing mysterious or supernatural about the reason; Franck died before he was able to finish the project. The entirety of the
Pieces for Organ or Harmonium
is also thrice asterisked, meaning this is its first complete recording on organ. The final disc in the set concludes with the
3 Chorales for Grand Organ.
At first, I was a bit skeptical of how Franck’s organ music would sound on a modern, German-built instrument. It’s difficult to disassociate these works from the Cavaillé-Coll organs that inspired them. Much of this music, in fact, was composed during Franck’s tenure as organist and
maître de chapelle
at Sainte-Clotilde between 1858 and 1872. Of the three-manual plus pedal Cavaillé-Coll organ installed in the church, Franck is quoted as saying, “If you only knew how I love this instrument . . . it is so supple beneath my fingers and so obedient to all my thoughts.”
Concluding the 63-page booklet note by Martin Weyer (translated by Viola Scheffel) is a lengthy apologia in defense of playing these works on a Goll organ. The author twists himself in knots talking about the historical period-instrument movement and then tries to turn the argument on its head by explaining why this modern Goll instrument is an appropriate substitute for a Cavaillé-Coll organ and Franck’s music. “Upon hearing the instrument,” Weyer contends, “one will discover a lot of similarities to the sort of instrument that Franck found inspiring.” One could counter that many an organist has recorded Franck’s organ works on authentic Cavaillé-Coll instruments, and that if organist Hans-Eberhard Roß had betaken himself to France to make these recordings, he could have done likewise. But, as far as I’m concerned, the point is irrelevant. Roß is a consummately accomplished player who uses the richly variegated palette of the Goll organ to paint Franck’s pieces in an amazing array of tonal color combinations both bright and subtle, and the acoustic of Memmingen’s St. Martin church, perfectly captured by Audite’s engineers, is ideal. Franck and Cavaillé-Coll are nodding their heads in approval.