Fascinating to hear three master works for piano by César Franck on the 200th anniversary almost to the day of his birth on the 10th December 1822.The pianist and musicologist Andrea Baggioli was at the Danish Academy in Rome to remind us of the importance of these works that are rarely heard in concert these days and certainly not together.Including also the Bach Chaconne not in the more usual Busoni transcription but in that of Brahms for the left hand alone.Playing of great architectural understanding if sometimes not of the clarity in Franck that would have made his ingenious counterpoints even more revealing.What better way to celebrate Cesar Franck’s 200th anniversary than with his Prelude Chorale and Fugue when it is played with such weight and authority.A prelude bathed in mysterious colours with clouds of pedal and a chorale that was allowed to shine on high above magisterial spread chords.The bold entry of the fugue and its climax on which the sublime opening theme in this cyclic work floated into the air of the Danish Academy ,as it must have done in St Clotilde in Paris , creating a magic that was to lead to the triumphant and nobly emphatic exultation of a true believer.
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 was written in 1884 and is an exemple of Franck’s distinctive use of cyclic form .The key to Franck’s music may be found in his personality. His friends record that he was “a man of utmost humility, simplicity, reverence and industry.” Louis Vierne , a pupil and later organist titulaire of Notre-Dame, wrote in his memoirs that Franck showed a “constant concern for the dignity of his art, for the nobility of his mission, and for the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound… Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all those at Sainte-Clotilde.”Franck had huge hands (evinced by the famous photo of him at the Ste-Clotilde organ), capable of spanning the interval of a 12th on the keyboard.This allowed him unusual flexibility in voice-leading between internal parts in fugal composition, and in the wide chords and stretches featured in much of his keyboard music.In his search to master new organ-playing techniques he was both challenged and stimulated by his third and last change in organ posts. On 22 January 1858, he became organist and maître de chapelle at the newly consecrated Sainte-Clotilde (from 1896 the Basilique-Sainte-Clotilde), where he remained until his death. Eleven months later, the parish installed a new three-manual Cavaillé-Coll instrument,whereupon he was made titulaire. The impact of this organ on Franck’s performance and composition cannot be overestimated; together with his early pianistic experience it shaped his music-making for the remainder of his life.
Here is the rare historic recording of Blanche Selva in 1928 one of the pioneers of french music https://youtube.com/watch?v=IdlM-nK8ppM&feature=share
Prélude, Aria et Final, op 23 was written in 1886 – 87 Unusually for a composer of such importance and reputation, Franck’s fame rests largely on a small number of compositions written in his later years, particularly his Symphony in D minor (1886-88) the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885), the Prelude Chorale and Fugue for piano solo (1884), the Violin Sonata in A (1886), the Piano Quintet in F minor (1879), and the symphonic poem Le Chasseur maudit (1883).
Here is the historic 1932 recording of Alfred Cortot whose edition of the score Andrea was using today https://youtube.com/watch?v=WV2cEfjlHec&feature=share
His set of Six Pièces for organ, written 1860–1862 (although not published until 1868). These compositions (dedicated to fellow organists and pianists, to his old master Benoist, and to Cavaillé-Coll) remain part of modern organ repertory and were,the first major contribution to French organ literature in over a century, and “the most important organ music written since Mendelssohn”.The group includes two of his best-known organ works, the “Prélude, Fugue et Variation”, op. 18 and the “Grande Pièce Symphonique op 17.”Franck was inspired to write this organ piece for the instrument at the church of Sainte-Clotilde. While it sounds majestic on the organ, it is also frequently heard in Harold Bauer’s transcription for the piano.The Prelude, Fugue and Variation, Op. 18 is one of Franck’s Six Pieces for organ, premiered by the composer at Sainte-Clotilde on 17 November 1864. They mark a decisive stage in his creative development, revealing how he was building on the post-Beethoven Germanic tradition in terms of the importance given to musical construction.
The Prelude, Fugue and Variation is dedicated to Saint-Saëns. Years earlier, when Franck published his Op. 1 trios, Liszt was among their admirers but had advised his younger colleague to write a new finale for the third of the trios and create a separate work from the original finale – this became Franck’s Fourth Piano Trio, Op. 2, dedicated to Liszt. In spring 1866, the Hungarian composer was in Paris for the French premiere of his Missa solennis for the consecration of the Basilica in Gran (Esztergom) at the Église Saint-Eustache on 15 March, a work about which Franck was enthusiastic. At the beginning of his stay, Liszt had come to listen to Franck improvising at Sainte-Clotilde and, apparently at Duparc’s instigation, a second private performance took place on 3 April. Franck wanted to play Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH but the latter asked instead to hear Franck’s own Prelude, Fugue and Variation.
The piano transcription of this organ work was made by Harold Bauer (1873-1951), the British pianist who gave the world premiere of Debussy’s Children’s Corner and was the dedicatee of Ondine, the first piece in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.Harold Bauer made his debut as a violinist in London in 1883, and for nine years toured England. In 1892, however, he went to Paris and studied with Paderewski for a year.In 1900, Harold Bauer made his debut in America with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing the U.S. premiere of Brahms’Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor. On 18 December 1908, he gave the world premiere performance of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite in Paris.After that he settled in the United States.He was also an influential teacher and editor, heading the Piano Department at the Manhattan School of Music . Starting in 1941, Bauer taught winter master classes at the University of Miami and served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Hartford Hartt .Students of Harold Bauer include notably Abbey Simon and Dora Zaslavsky.
Here is Mariam Batsashvili talking about and playing this Franck /Bauer transcription https://youtube.com/watch?v=35ZYj_SNvYM&feature=share
Presenting his transcription to Clara Schumann (his friend and the widow of Robert Schumann), Brahms wrote: “The Chaconne is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad. If one has no supremely great violinist at hand, the most exquisite of joys is probably simply to let the Chaconne ring in one’s mind. But the piece certainly inspires one to occupy oneself with it somehow…. There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from the piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone…. The same difficulty, the nature of the technique, the rendering of the arpeggios, everything conspires to make me feel like a violinist!”
Here is the 1889 recording of Brahms himself playing – not the chaconne unfortunately but a short extract of one of his Hungarian Dances https://youtube.com/watch?v=H31q7Qrjjo0&feature=share
Majesty and vastness are easily conjured when two hands and a grand piano, or for that matter a full symphony orchestra, are called into service. But it is far more challenging to recognize that the true genius of the Chaconne is that it achieves its immenseness within the confinements of a single violin, and then to seek to inhabit on the piano this achievement with just the left hand alone.