Franck rarities GP906

César Franck (1822-1890)
Piano Rarities – original works and transcriptions

Prélude, Fugue et Variation Op.18 (c.1863, arr. Harold Bauer, publ. 1910)
Les Éolides CFF.127 (1875-76 arr. Gustave Samazeuilh, publ.1912)
Prière Op.20 (c.1860 arr. Blanche Selva, publ.1912)
Prélude, Chorale et Fugue (1884)
Ruth, églogue biblique – introduction CFF.179B (1843-45 rev.1860)
Jean-Pierre Armengaud (piano)
rec. 2022, Atelier Musical of Malakoff, France
Grand Piano GP906

Franck wrote only two mature piano works, the splendid Prélude, Chorale et Fugue and the rather less fine Prélude, Aria et Finale. The first of these features here; otherwise, we have a collection of transcriptions, all except one by other hands.

We begin with the best-known, the version by Harold Bauer of the Prélude, Fugue et Variation, originally written for organ. Bauer did his work so skilfully that you would hardly think that this was not an original piano work, apart from a few spread chords – but then Franck used these anyway in his proper piano works. In this form it is a worthy companion to the two major piano works, and its gentle melody and limpid flow make a good contrast to the more powerful writing in those works. I liked Armengaud’s performance, in which he makes intelligent use of the Steinway third pedal, the sostenuto pedal, to sustain the deep bass notes while the melody and figuration occur above.

Les Éolides is a most attractive orchestral tone poem, inspired by a poem by Leconte de Lisle about what in English we call the Aeolids, the daughters of Aeolus, keeper of the winds in Homer. The original has an elaborate texture, which makes for complex piano writing in Samazeuilh’s piano transcription. I am sorry to say that Armengaud makes rather heavy weather of this, with the figuration frequently being too loud and obscuring the melody. In two passages he substitutes tremolos rather than Samazeuil’s transcription of the original more complex writing. Despite these having been taken from Franck’s own duet transcription, I do not think tremolos on the piano really work, even in Liszt.

The Prière was another organ piece, this time transcribed by Blanche Selva. I did not think this really worked as a piano work, or perhaps, though normally a fan of Franck, I simply found it too long and shapeless.

The Prélude, Chorale et Fugue should be rights be the highlight of this disc. Unfortunately, I could not enjoy this performance. Armengaud seems to me to mistake the rhythms and emphases in the opening Prélude. In the Chorale he fails to shape the massive chords, in which the top note carrying the melody is played by the left hand reaching over. The Fugue starts well, but when the subject comes in triplets they are laboured and heavy and there is too much really loud and forceful playing.

The oratorio Ruth is an early work which Franck revised later. It has not, however, gained a place in the regular repertoire. The Introduction is from the piano score which Franck made himself. However, it seems to be simply a piano reduction for use in rehearsals, with no pretensions to being reconceived for the piano. There is a plodding march and a rather sombre lyrical passage.  Armengaud does this quite nicely, but the piece is not of much interest.

Armengaud has a track record in French music, and has recorded Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, though I have not heard his versions. Unfortunately, in this recording he does not seem to be on his best form. Les Éolides, Prière and the Introduction to Ruth are noted as premiere recordings, but I did not feel that I would want to return to them. The sleevenote is helpful and the recording very good.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Rob Challinor (February 2023)

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