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César FRANCK (1822 - 1899): "De l'autel au salon - Oeuvres chorales" (From the altar to the salon - Choral works)

Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Emmanuel Tondus, cello; Éric Mathot, double bass; Hannelore Devaere, harp; Philippe Riga, fortepiano; Edward Vanmarsenille, harmonium, organ
Dir: Thibaut Lenaerts

rec: August 14 - 19, 2020, Gesves (B), Église Saint-Maximin
Musique en Wallonie - MEW2022 (© 2021) (76'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/[F]/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Andantino (CFF 548); Aux petits enfants (CFF 166); Dextera Domini (CFF 211); Domine Deus in simplicitate (CFF 210); Domine non secundum (CFF 213); Le garde d'honneur (CFF 204); Les danses de Lormont (CFF 168); Litanies de la Sainte Vierge (CFF 223); Ô vous qu'elle a pris pour modèle (CFF 199); Panis angelicus (CFF 209); Pizzicati et andante (Delibes) (CFF 238); Premier sourire de mai (CFF 172); Quae est ista (CFF 212); Quare fremuerunt gentes (CFF 215); Rebecca (CFF 187) (Sous l'ombre fraîche des palmiers; Nous marchions avant que l'aurore; En toi, mon Dieu, notre âme se confie); Salut jour vénéré (CFF 205); Source ineffabile de lumière (CFF 171); Tantum ergo (CFF 208,3);

Gwendoline Blondeel*, Julie Calbete, Camille Hubert, Elke Janssens, Barbara Menier, Amélie Renglet, Caroline Weynants*, soprano; Anaïs Brullez, Joëlle Charlier, Pauline de Lannoy, Caroline de Mahieu*, Véronique Gosset, Julie Vercauteren, mezzo-soprano/contralto; Nicolas Bauchau, Pierre Derhet*, Éric François, Vincent Mahiat, Maxime Melnik*, Jonathan Spicher, tenor; Kamil Ben Hsain Lachiri*, Pieter Coene, Étienne Debaisieux, Philippe Favette, Jean-Marie Marchal, Samuel Namotte*, bass
(*) soloists

In 2022 the birth of César Franck was commemorated. He may seem one of those composers who don't need a commemoration. He was one of the main figures in French music life during the second half of the 19th century. His music is frequently played, and that goes in particular for his organ works, which are close to being the 19th century French counterpart of Bach, and some of his orchestral works, such as his only symphony. Among the vocal works Panis angelicus is pretty much an evergreen, although it is probably seldom performed in the original scoring. And that is exactly why a commemoration of a well-known composer may make sense: too often his music is not performed according to his own intentions, and those works which are performed frequently, tend to overshadow parts of his oeuvre that may have less appeal to a wider audience or are harder to perform. That leads to the present disc, which presents a survey of Franck's vocal music for relatively small forces. The fact that this music is probably not easy to perform in the concert hall and very much reflect the spirit of the time, explains why most of these pieces may be unknown even to those who have a more than average interest in Franck's music.

"'Vox humana' or 'Vox celestis'? For César Franck (1822-1890) the one is often a metaphor for the other; whether in sacred or secular vein, spirituality is inherent in all his vocal music, even the most modest of his choral works." With these words Joël-Marie Fauquet opens his liner-notes, and it is important to keep this in mind while listening to the programme of this disc.

Vocal music played an important role in Franck's career. From a very early age he used to accompany singers at the piano. Throughout his career he directed vocal ensembles, such as the Saint-Clotilde choir school. His latter activities undoubtedly inspired him to compose works for choral forces, which were often sacred in nature. Franck's vocal ensembles often sang in church, but religion and the church played a major role in his life and career anyway. In his sacred music he shows himself to be part of a broad international movement, which aimed at a reformation of church music. In Germany this was known as the Cecilian movement. As New Grove puts it: "Reacting to the liberalization of the Enlightenment, the Cecilians sought to restore traditional religious feeling and the authority of the church. They regarded 'true, genuine church music' as being subservient to the liturgy, and intelligibility of words and music as more important than artistic individuality." Part of this movement was a rediscovery of the music by Palestrina and Bach, and the tradition of plainchant. Whereas in Germany only minor composers adhered to the principles of the Cecilian movement, and hardly any of them is generally known today, Franck was a highly-respected figure in the music scene. Even so, today his sacred music as performed here is hardly taken seriously. The assessment of this part of his oeuvre in New Grove is rather negative, although a few pieces are mentioned in a more positive way.

A disc like the one recorded by the Choeur de Chambre de Namur under the direction of Thibaut Lenaerts should be able to correct the image of Franck's skills in the writing of vocal music. It seems to me that a fair assessment of a composer's oeuvre is only possible if it is performed with the instruments and the performance practice of his time. That is not just an option, but a necessity. That makes this disc an important contribution to the knowledge and appreciation of the music by Franck and his contemporaries. That does not mean that one should overlook "the prevailing sentimental style of church music in mid-19th-century France", as New Grove puts it. Panis angelicus is certainly not free from it, but it helps if it is performed according to the wishes of the composer. Whereas the Latin texts are mostly rather common, that is not the case with the pieces in French, either spiritual or secular.

The scoring of these works is often less than conventional. Pieces for four voices are rare; many are for three, and sometimes only for women's voices. Three are taken from a set of six for equal voices. Several pieces are for solo voices, either soprano, tenor or bass; the alto does not play any major role. Another issue is the instrumental accompaniment. The piano and the harmonium play a major role in this repertoire. The harmonium has largely disappeared from the music scene. The most important work in which it makes its appearance is Gioacchino Rossini's Messe solennelle. In large orchestral works the modern concert grand is still mostly used, but I find it hard to imagine such an instrument as accompaniment for these vocal pieces. The use of an Érard of 1870, as in this recording, is a much better option.

Thibaut Lenaerts has taken some liberties in the line-up. In Quae est ista and Panis angelicus the organ part is performed at the harmonium. "This decision is justified partly because Franck, as both composer and performer, was just as familiar with the harmonium as with the organ, and also because before Aristide Cavaillé-Coll had completed the great organ at Sainte-Clotilde, the harmonium was the instrument available to Franck to accompany his choristers", Joël-Marie Fauquet writes. That may be true, but I can't see the need, especially as elsewhere an organ by Cavaillé-Coll is used. In Tantum ergo the upper part of the organ is allocated to the cello, and again this seems unnecessary. However, these are relatively minor quibbles, which don't compromise my appreciation of this disc, which for me was pretty much my first acquaintance with the music of César Franck.

The Choeur de Chambre de Namur is a household name in early music. I have heard it many times, and always with great satisfaction. It is one of the best in the business, and here it shows that it knows its way in later music as well. The solos are sung by members of the choir, and they do a very good job. In some cases, such as in Panis angelicus, I would have preferred a little less vibrato. I just wonder about the Italian pronunciation of Latin. A French pronunciation was common until well into the 19th century. I don't know when it changed, but it may well have been still in vogue in Franck's time. The instrumental accompaniment leaves nothing to be desired. It was a nice idea to include some purely instrumental pieces as well.

As this disc does not include the complete sacred and secular vocal music without orchestra by Franck, a sequel would be most welcome.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Hannelore Devaere
Éric Mathot
Emmanuel Tondus
Edward Vanmarsenille

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