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Following on from Fugue State Films’ extensive set of documentaries about Cavaillé-Coll, this new release delves deep into the world of one of the composers most closely associated with the great organ builder’s work – César Franck.

Although employing the now familiar Fugue State style, these documentaries are clearly more pedagogically orientated than their usual fare, with the obvious exception of their release about Bach’s Art of Fugue. Eric Lebrun’s quick-fire account of Franck’s life as an organist is followed by David Noël-Hudson’s hour of analysis of the twelve major pieces, while Joris Verdin provides a further 40 minutes of discussion on performance practice issues. Verdin’s contribution is in many ways the highlight: his insights into Franck’s music, questions surrounding the use of the cuillère (convincingly demonstrating its expressive advantages over the balanced swell) and, most especially, tempo are typically perceptive. True, Verdin has always ploughed his own furrow, promoting for example the literal interpretation of Franck’s (unexpectedly quick) tempo markings as published in the biography by Joël-Marie Fauquet. In this sense, his conclusions imply a very different, rather less reverential, approach than that offered in the performances by David Noël-Hudson, both on DVD and CD.

An Anglo-French former pupil of Marie-Claire Alain, Hudson has enjoyed unprecedented exposure thanks to Fugue State Films. Although his control is sometimes inconsistent, his interpretations are undeniably expressive and well worthy of joining the vast pantheon of recordings of this literature. The organs, all by Cavaillé-Coll, have been chosen carefully: the Trois pièces on the late Baron d’Espée’s house organ at St Antoine des Quinze Vingts in Paris (largely on account its having two enclosed divisions, as did the organ at the Trocadero for which the works were written in 1878), while the Trois chorales and Six pièces are divided between the wonderful, early four-manual at the Cathedral of Saint-Omer, and Hudson’s own organ at Saint-Louis d’Antin in Paris.

Joris Verdin also contributes a brief survey of Franck’s lifelong relationship with the harmonium and the background to his compositions for it. In it he stresses that L’Organiste, despite its title, was intended exclusively for the harmonium and is not in any way organ music. Difficult to understand, therefore, why a group of pieces from the collection are then performed (albeit beautifully) on the orgue de choeur at Orléans Cathedral by Jean-Pierre Griveau. The only real disappointment, however, is current Sainte-Clotilde titulaire Olivier Penin’s brief and perfunctory demonstration of the current instrument there, the many adversities meted out to it since Franck’s tenure (unsurprisingly not detailed by Penin) rendering this somewhat inconsequential.

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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