Robert Matthew-Walker
International Record Review
October 2013

There has been some interest recently in recordings of large-scale symphonies and other orchestral works in transcriptions for organ, most notably with Mahler symphonies played by David Briggs, and although music lovers in general may look askance at such efforts, I for one have been impressed with many of the results. Such transcriptions can often work exceptionally well live in concert, as the programme given by Philip Scriven in this year’s Westminster Cathedral Grand Organ Festival in London demonstrated. Scriven’s programme began with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in Briggs’s transcription, followed by The Rite of Spring played by two organists (!) — Scriven joined by Martin Baker—the performances earning standing ovations from the very large audience in the Cathedral.

There were several major symphonists of the nineteenth century who were also magnificent organists—Bruckner and Franck especially—and their symphonic music transfers particularly well to the organ, for one may imagine it was the very instrument through which the initial inspiration of their orchestral writing arose. We have had Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony transcribed and played by Thomas Schmögner at La Madeleine, Paris and Lionel Rogg’s transcription of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, but it was César Franck who composed the first symphony for organ in 1863, initially publishing it with that title before renaming it in the 1868 edition as Grand Pièce Symphonique.

In this country we have only to look at Elgar’s Op. 28 Organ Sonata to realize that it is in all respects a symphonie manqué—effectively his second symphony, after The Black Knight (described by Elgar on his manuscript as ‘a choral symphony’ and therefore, being composed in 1893, the first fully choral symphony by an English composer).

Half a century and more ago, Franck’s Symphony in D minor was a regular concert item across the world, known to every conductor and orchestral musician, even though it took no little time to become established. Yet today, even the composer’s name often causes a puzzled reaction, but the music of course hasn’t changed. The lacuna between the public’s appreciation of large-scale organ and orchestral music is greater these days than it was at the end of the nineteenth century, but with recordings it is far easier to bridge it, and this new Hyperion CD of Franck’s Symphony in Simon Johnson’s transcription and played by him on the great organ of St Paul’s Cathedral is an impressive and enlightening experience.

Johnson clearly has the measure of this work. He certainly does not overload the rhetoric, for his tempos are broadly based and consistently held. If one feels that the basic tempo of the first movement has been tailored to the acoustic of St Paul’s (notoriously difficult to capture in recording terms, but very well managed here), in this instance it is entirely convincing, and actually adds to the stature of the work as a second Grande Pièce Symphonique. His performance, it seems to me, appears to restore much of the work to the organ loft, wherefrom (especially in the second movement and in large stretches of the finale) one can readily believe it emanated. For some ears, this recording may bring home the effect that the acoustics of performance venues have on tempos, but I was enthralled throughout the Symphony.

The Cantabile and the great Pièce héroïque are very finely performed, the former especially. This is a piece which can be (and often is) overlooked on account of its relative brevity, but Johnson delivers here one of the finest and most convincing accounts of the music I have heard, raising the stature of the piece, and although some purists may question his basic tempo with regard to Franck’s Non troppo lento indication, the final rallentando is superbly judged.

The detail in this recording of the Pièce héroïque is surprisingly good considering the venue, and the engineers have to be applauded for capturing this magnificent instrument in its more refined and gentle registration (the ‘heroic’ nature of the music is not wholly of the flag-waving manner). Johnson’s performance is beautifully paced throughout.

The symphonic interlude from Franck’s large-scale oratorio Rédemption (1874) is a magnificent piece in itself , and has been transcribed several times. This (latest) version is by Daniel Roth, current organist of Saint-Sulpice, and it reinforces once more the belief that much of Franck’s music first came to him (or was certainly first tried out) at the organ. The music suits the instrument admirably and is utterly convincing, especially in such a superbly sympathetic performance as this, so well recorded.

Johnson provides excellent booklet notes, but the graphic designer has gained the upper hand in the pages devoted to the organ registration: the details are virtually obscured.