Ivan Hewett reviews César Franck: Le Chasseur Maudit, Psyché, Les Éolides, performed by RCS Voices and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud
One of the enjoyable things about romantic music is the way sex and spirituality often get mixed up. Those sumptuous strings and fluttering harmonies and tinkly harps can open a door onto heaven, but they can also suggest someone getting hot and bothered in a very different sort of paradise, and sometimes it’s hard to know which one the composer meant.
Belgian-born, French-domiciled composer César Franck seemed pretty confused himself. He spent much of life playing and teaching the organ, and projected an image of passionate piety. His band of devoted students played up to the image, dubbing their teacher the “Pater Seraphicus”. The trouble is the music doesn’t always bear out the composer’s self-conception. It positively reeks of Wagnerian eroticism, even in the religious works, and the steaminess only increased as Franck got older.
This new release features three of Franck’s late tone-poems from the 1880s which show the Wagnerian strain in his music at its height. Le Chasseur Maudit (“The Damned Hunter”) is a thrilling portrayal of a hunter doomed to be pursued for all eternity for breaking the prohibition on hunting on the Sabbath. In complete contrast is Les Éolides, an innocent little number which imagines the daughters of Aeolus, God of the winds dancing to create little breezes of their own.
By far the biggest piece on the disc is Psyché. It tells the story of the god Eros, who’s sent by his jealous mother Venus to punish the mortal Psyché for being “more beautiful than beauty itself”. Unsurprisingly Eros conceives a burning passion for the maiden, plucks her from the underworld where the Gods had imprisoned her, and persuades the West Wind to waft her to a heavenly garden where she wakens from a dream-filled slumber. They meet, and the chorus whisper in Psyché’s ear about the charms of love. The inevitable happens, but Psyché breaks the rule that she mustn’t look at Eros, on pain of separation. The chorus laments but the unhappiness doesn’t last long; Franck brings the couple back together, in heaven.
It’s heady stuff, but Franck later became embarrassed about the music’s eroticism, and his student D’Indy tried to foist a Christian allegory onto the myth to save his master’s reputation. There are moments in this new recording when that idea almost seems plausible, when the yearning takes on a spiritual tinge. But mostly the music radiates a French-flavoured Wagnerian sultriness, as if the Flower Maidens from Parsifal have donned bustles and petticoats and taken up residence in a Parisian boudoir.
The disc gets off to a cracking start with Le Chasseur Maudit, which races to its doom with reckless energy, with fine-grained playing from the RSNO that adds to the thrill. In Les Éolides the players do their best to trip with Mendelssohn-like lightness, but Franck’s orchestration frankly isn’t the deftest. One gets the impression these diaphanously draped goddesses have thick calves.
The performance of Psyché is given a real lift by the excellent young singers of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices, who are clear yet rich in sound. The orchestral playing is also fine, but overall the recording is compromised by conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud’s sluggish tempos. The meeting between Psyché and Eros is supposed to be Allegretto (moderately fast) but on this recording it felt becalmed. Tingaud clearly wanted to stress the music’s sultry languor, but even languor needs a bit of rhythmic animation if it isn’t to sink into somnolence.