WORKS: Great Organ Works, Vol. 1: Prélude, fugue et variation, Op. 18; Fantasy in C, Op. 16, ; Vol. 2: Trois pièces; Trois chorals; Pastorale, Op. 19
PERFORMER: Eric Lebrun (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554697, 8.554698
The image of the ‘pater seraphicus’ Franck, the infinitely patient and sensitive organist-composer, has a lot to answer for. It has denatured and emasculated a composer who was once a technical whizz-kid, touted as a child prodigy of the piano, and creator of umpteen virtuoso tours de force. The recent discovery of some metronome marks written in Franck’s hand ought to help exorcise a few more ghosts surrounding the performance of his organ music. Rather than the ‘holier than thou’ reverence usually accorded it, these markings hint at a vibrant and energetic performance which strips away a good many layers of sentimental ballast that have always weighed these pieces down.
Eric Lebrun, in his two volumes of Franck organ music, at least has an authentic Cavaillé-Coll at his fingertips, and thus the right sound-world (though the recording is disappointingly middle-heavy). None of it sounds bland, and there are even winsomely attractive moments. But Lebrun is too keen to opt for an unremarkable middle ground of expressivity and energy; none of the playing puts its money where its mouth is and goes for Romantic fulsomeness in either direction. Jeanne Demessieux’s 1959 recording at La Madeleine, despite many faults, still brings far more commitment to the playing, and a real fire to the virtuoso pieces, hauling Franck back into the frame as a premiere virtuoso of his time. She cannot be matched for making pieces like the Third Chorale or the Final sound like a brilliantly inspired improvisation. William Whitehead