Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
I was a bit skeptical of this release when I caught wind of it a couple months ago. I'm a big fan of Alison Krauss, and I think she has carved out a distinctive niche for herself, a place that is not restrictive of her talents and versatility but is nonetheless pretty confidently circumscribed. This pairing with Robert Plant, the famous vocalist from the early hard rock band Led Zeppelin, seemed a defiant step outside her comfort zone. Her voice is pure and angelic, quite a contrast to the wounded-animal howl of Plant, and after her duets with aging rocker John Waite on her last album--a pairing which I felt did not work for her--I wondered whether she were really cut out for harder material.
Well, I may have had the wrong end of the stick in this case; I needn't have worried. This pairing works much better than I expected, chiefly to the exact extent that Plant has wandered afield from what I was prepared for. That said, I'm really not familiar with Led Zeppelin or whatever of Robert Plant's solo career may have followed the band's demise. But this material is much closer to Alison's milieu than what I imagine his to be. Looking on Wikipedia now, it seems he is renowned for his ability to play a wide range of styles, so maybe this pairing with Alison Krauss is surprising to me only because of my limited knowledge of Plant. Whatever, it seems to work.
Much of the album is quiet and contemplative, sometimes extremely so. Famed producer T. Bone Burnett has given the singers a very dry and sparse backing, some tracks sounding like little more than 2-track demos recorded in someone's basement. Things are closely recorded, but there is a conspicuous absence of lushness or smoothness to how the sound has been captured and processed. And much of the instrumental playing is so subdued and elementary that it sounds almost hillbilly-primitive. Plant lets his vocals go a couple times just a bit, and in those moments his stylistic identity--and the weight of several decades of his presence in rock music--comes careening to the fore, but just as quickly he's back to practically whispering over what sounds like barely-played accompaniment. This peculiar lack of energy does not translate into a lack of vitality, exactly, but the result is so quietly nuanced that it takes rapt attention to hear the details. I can't decide just yet whether those details pay off adequately for the effort.
Alison does what Alison always does, singing her angelic song and, on several tracks, playing her plaintive fiddle. Krauss and Plant each take a solo turn or two, but most of the time it's Alison singing harmony for Plant. With vocal harmonies a pointed specialty of Krauss's band, Union Station, she seems very well prepared for this role.
But the aftertaste is of the striking sparseness of the tracks, and of the conspicuous absence of sonic luxury. Not to say that I'm oblivious to the beauty of a simple, well-turned phrase or a melodic idea in isolation, but my preference for more worked-out compositions causes me to take a wait-and-see attitude on this album.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
A friend pointed me to this article by Alex Ross talking about classical music on the web. After my lament some months ago about the teetering state of classical music in this country (spurred by the rapid closure of my favorite CD outlets in New York, Chicago and Philly), this is a breath of fresh air. I still think there are a bunch of valid questions here about how long music written 300 years ago can remain relevant, about what in that time period made something so lasting when so much of modern culture (to include much modern music, at least to my ear) is destined to flash and disappear. The whole classical music industry, it seems, rests on the frills of a cultural fetish which seems oddly insular and disconnected from the ever-accelerating stream of popular culture. I'm not trying to make a judgment (though I have strong feelings on the subject); I'm just trying to see where the lines intersect and what it means.
Ross is the classical music critic for the New Yorker, and his article gives a glimmer of hope. That the web might constitute classical music's iron lung (or maybe its penicillin) makes sense, actually. Just as eBay enables you to peddle your fur-coated widget to that exact person in a rattling tenement in Surinam who has been searching for just that very thing (spoken like a Dame Edna), it makes sense that the web enables a gathering of sorts of a whole lot of interested people to something which locally appears to be almost nonexistent. One classical music person per small Iowegian town does not enable an orchestra to form, or even a soloist to visit. But given enough little towns, the numbers become significant. I can understand that the world may not need several hundred symphony orchestras, but the merits of the music are real; I can't accept that because not every community can generate the financial numbers to keep an concert ensemble afloat then the music itself must die and leave those of us with ears to suffer Carrie Underwood.
Me, I love lots of stuff musical, but one of my chief passions is the organ. If I wring my hands a bit about the fate of the symphony orchestra, I really feel nervous about the future of the organ--with some justification, I think. 75 years ago, the big organ building firms in this country were producing several hundred substantial instruments a year. The number must be a fraction of that today. Organ music is not a growing concern--quite the contrary; it is becoming a relic of a past age, an exercise in conservatism and nostalgia (which is why the church remains its last, fading bastion). The idea of putting a pipe organ in a new civic auditorium has already moved from quaint to archaic to unjustifiable. In the end, it's just too narrow a niche, I'm afraid, one with which electronics are too easily able to cope. Don't get me wrong: I dearly love the instrument, and I don't think an electronic keyboard is an adequate replacement; but I think some pessimism about its future is warranted.
But when I spend a little time online, it seems I'm not the only person who will lament the organ's passing. Spend a little more time, and I begin to think our numbers are such that maybe my own rumors of the organ's death have been greatly exaggerated.
I got my computer back after a week in the shop, and of course it came back with all my music files missing. All 17,000 of them. I kind of expected this, and I think I have a good backup on an external drive at home, but I won't get a chance to put everything back on here for several days (and I'm not sure it'll work then, or exactly what I'll have at transfer's end). I do have my iPod along, so I'm not without music altogether. But I was facing a week spent on reduced musical rations.
But not to worry. I found that a little poking around--by way of Minnesota Public Radio's Pipedreams website and Wikipedia's list of organ builders--kept me in fabulous and unexpected organ music for several hours, with no end in sight. Various builders often have sound clips available of their instruments for streaming, and sometimes for download. And there are a whole lot of other resources available. I don't believe any of this promises to put the organ back in the driver's seat of people's musical and intellectual nourishment; and I think the same $250,000-$500,000 that would put a beautiful pipe organ in a nice, reverberant space can buy some very interesting and ever-improving alternatives for producing similar sounds. As a fan of recorded music, the work of synthesist Wendy Carlos, and the prospect of "virtual acoustics" talked about in this post make me excited for what lies ahead, even as I lament a beloved thing which is passing into antiquity.
(And I'm amazed again and again at what sits ready at our fingertips.)
Saturday, October 13, 2007
French Mode: Jared Johnson on the Kay Africa Memorial organ,
Finney Chapel, Oberlin College.
Pro Organo CD 7153
- Widor: Symphony No. 5 in F Major, Op. 42, No. 1
- Dupre: Prelude and Fugue in f minor, Op. 7
- Alain: Danse Funebre pour Honorer une Memoire Heroique
- Hakim: Symphony in Three Movements
As promised, here are my two cents' worth about Jared Johnson's recording of more French music on the new Fisk organ at Oberlin college, one modeled after Cavaillé-Coll. Posts discussing the organ itself are to be found here and here.
Jared Johnson is a graduate of Oberlin College, and a student of Thomas Murray and Haskell Thomson. He is currently Assistant Organist and Choirmaster of Trinity Churcy on the Green in new Haven, Connecticut, and Director of Music of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
This is a nice sampling of a good 80 years of Parisian organ history, moving chronologically from Widor's famous Fifth Symphony of 1887, to one of Marcel Dupré's Preludes and Fugues from 1914 (Dupré was Widor's successor at St. Sulpice), to a lesser-known piece from 1938 of Jean Alain, the very talented young Parisian composer who was killed early in the Second World War, and finishing with the Symphony en trois mouvements of 1984 by Naji Hakim, who is the present titular organist at Trinité in Paris, taking the post after the death in 1993 of Olivier Messiaen.
Especially after the recently-reviewed recording by Frank Speller of Cesar Franck on a Dutch-inspired instrument in Texas, it's most interesting to me to come back to this fascinating Fisk organ and to hear yet another organist's take on this earnest American replica of a French instrument. After the Visser-Rowland of Frank Speller's recording, this Fisk does indeed sound French in comparison, and certainly it sounds magnificent in this repertoire (which is not meant as any criticism of the Speller disc, which is wonderful and illuminating on its own). The very dry acoustic of Finney Chapel enables one to hear the details of this music with greater clarity than is typical, and the instrument has impressive power and range.
Jared Johnson is an accomplished, assured organist, and he does great justice to these pieces. The technical fireworks of Widor's famous Toccata from the Fifth Symphony (the second most famous and recognized piece for the organ after Bach's d minor Toccata and Fugue) are rendered with such clarity that it's almost like having a magic trick demonstrated and explained. The exact rollicking interplay between the hands and the feet in this movement have never been so clearly revealed. Dupré's quiet Prelude and measured Fugue from his Op. 7 take us half a century into the future from the Widor, and give the organ a chance to show off another group of colors from the previous piece. Both the Hakim Symphony and the Alain are new pieces for me. Johnson uses the organ's full range, and the pieces are registered with confident authenticity.
This makes three recordings for me on this instrument, covering Franck, Tournemire, and now this disc of four other eminent Frenchmen. And the more I hear of it the more it impresses me and convinces me that it was a really worthwhile experiment. However much I'm coming to love the sound of the instrument, I'm still not quite fooled into thinking it's the work of Cavaillé-Coll, and I'd love to figure out why not. (I'm writing this review in the absence of my CD collection--though I have the music with me on iTunes--so the answers may well be there in the liner notes.)
This instrument has it all: a fascinating pedigree, a really wonderful sonic character, and now a stable of fine recordings to show it off to a wider audience. And we're all beneficiaries.
Tournemire at Oberlin
J. Melvin Butler, organist
Loft Records, LRCD-1063-64
- L’Orgue mystique, Op. 55, No. 7
- Cantilène improvisée
- Petite rapsodie improvisée
- L’Orgue mystique, Op. 56, No. 24
- Fantaisie-Improvisation sur l' Ave maris stella
- L'Orgue mystique, Op. 57, No. 35
This is a posting from November, 2005 on my other blog, and mentioned in a review from a couple weeks back on this space. Both CDs from this present and the prior posts were made on the same instrument, and I have yet another recording by a third organist on this instrument, a review of which I'll post shortly.
This entry was actually written in 2004 when I acquired this disc, and the focus is mostly on the recording itself. In light of all these recordings and interest in this instrument, it seems relevant to put the post here now.
...I found an especially intriguing disc of Tournemire played on the new Fisk organ at Oberlin college, an organ which unabashedly copies a Cavaille-Coll instrument. Or, more accurately, is a speculation of what Cavaille-Coll would have built in this case; the Fisk shop had access to resources of the Cavaille-Coll shop and used his pipe scalings and design preferences (layout, wind pressures)and construction techniques and his same basic machinery (i.e. a Barker Lever) and a stop list which reflects C-C’s practices. Very interesting. This Fisk instrument took me by surprise; I had no idea it (Op. 116, installed 2002) even existed. (I'm spending too much time around airplanes.)
But the recording itself then gets on board and goes a step further: they include a bonus disc called “What the Oberlin Fisk would sound like in Chartres Cathedral.” For this second disc, they basically run the data of the original digital recording through an acoustic program which applies the same alterations to the original data as the acoustics of Chartres have been shown by measurement to alter test sounds played there.
I’ll quote from the liner notes:
“Recently, several companies have released a new type of tool for creating virtual acoustics. This new class of computer program takes actual measurements of specific rooms to create mathematical models. Any sound can be given as input to the model, and the model responds as the room’s acoustics do. In this CD, the acoustics of Chartres Cathedral were measured using a tone sweep generator (a device which “sweeps” in pitch up and down in a predictable pattern) played thru three Genelec S30 monitor speakers. The sound was recorded using Danish Pro Audio 4006 omni microphones (the same microphones used to record in Finney Chapel) at a distance of 11 meters. The recording was sampled at 48 kHz per channel using 24-bit words. The difference between the sweep tone (the loudspeakers) and the recording (the microphones) represents what Chartres Cathedral does to a sound in the room. Because both the recording and the sweep tone are represented numerically in the computer, it is relatively straightforward to create an algorithm that represents the transformation of sound. We selected this model in the computer, and gave it the Oberlin recording as a sound source. The result was what the Oberlin organ would sound like if it were in Chartres--almost! To be precise, the result is similar to what the Oberlin organ would sound like if it were placed in Chartres exactly where the loudspeakers were (in the crossing). Added into the result are also the sound of Finney chapel and the inherent distortions of the loudspeakers and measurement microphones.”
He then goes on to talk a bit about numbers--sampling rates, etc.--in the context of crediting modern computing power with the existence of this tool, and says that “for each second of stereo sound, the computer had to generate 38,896,200,000 numbers”!
Talking about exactly what happens in the acoustic of Chartres, the program tells us that the low frequencies are enhanced while higher frequencies are absorbed a bit more, and of course reverberation goes from a couple seconds in Oberlin to 10 seconds at Chartres, which has a more complicated effect than just the sustain of the original sound. The typical powerful French reeds gain in fundamental and lose in rattle, and the ensemble loses some and gains some.
The resulting CD is really interesting, and there is no hint that any processing has occurred. Though it sounds delicious, to my ear it does not sound like any Cavaille-Coll instrument I’m familiar with, which makes one wonder whether A) the original instruments have changed over time or, more likely, B) whether there is some further (probably human) element--voicing or something--which was responsible in part for C-C's sound and which has not been captured by the Fisk shop. And then there is the question of whether the Fisk shop might have voiced the instrument differently or altered the stop list if the organ were intended for Chartres’ acoustic rather than the relative deadness of the Oberlin recital hall. This is probably an important element: the organ was not voiced around this adopted acoustic.
The liner notes express concern that this technology might lead to the accelerated obsolescence of the concert-going experience, or a further dilution of our reverence for fidelity and for live performance, all valid questions, I suppose. For my part, I wonder if digital technology has not finally reached the point where the pipe organ is an obsolete relic. This was of course the threatened outcome when the electronic organ was invented, and it has not thus far come to pass--though surely it will eventually. Electronics get better and better, cheaper and cheaper; at some point the collected expertise of a centuries-old industry will fade out and a very few hugely expensive pipe organs will be built as exercises in Nostalgia, like Harley Davidson. The piano has certainly faded in prominence in the past 50 years because of electronics, and the once-booming industry which makes them is but a shadow of its former glory. (Though I should note that several piano manufacturers are still going strong--Steinway, Yamaha, Kawai, several Korean firms.)
I think there are a couple main things keeping the organ alive still. There is the practical matter of the existence of many thousands of instruments, which require players of pointed technical skill, and thus an educational / training structure with deep roots. This is somewhat self-sustaining, since the existence of organs and people to play and maintain them causes new ones to be built. This whole business creates and sustains fans of both the machinery and of the sounds produced. And of course, there is the magic of the sound itself, a complex and highly variable sound covering several octaves beyond the range of a piano keyboard and in many different timbres and covering a huge dynamic range. The synthesizer is able to duplicate this range, at least in theory, but one that succeeds in meeting a large organ toe-to-toe is worthy of at least as much admiration and fascination.
I also think there is a sense of history and a conservatism which attend the circumstances where organs are typically installed and used (i.e. churches and universities--organs are all but extinct in civic spaces now) which create a resistance to using an undignified modern keyboard as a replacement. Lastly, I would speculate that most electric sound-reproduction systems would have difficulty with really high-quality production of such powerful sounds, especially the low tones. Even a very expensive speaker system, while it might reach the 16-18 hertz range, could not do so very loudly. Speaker cones would be highly challenged to move as much air in a huge cathedral space as the huge blowers moving thru sequoia-sized pipes can do. Low organ bass is as much felt as it is heard, and I think this is what speakers have trouble with unless you have a rock concert setup. (And maybe even then: a bass guitar is an octave or more above organ bass, and bass drums seem not particularly challenging.)
This is all peripheral to the recording itself, which is really fabulous. J. Melvin Butler's performance is excellent, a first-rate exposé of a composer who has been at the sharp point of my musical interest for the past few years; and the organ itself sounds brilliant, processed or not. But to me the real star here is this bonus disc. It allows a deep immersion in a couple areas of especial fascination to me. It's a must-have if you share my enthusiasm for these things.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Buxtehude: Seven Trio Sonatas Op. 2
John Holloway, Violin / Jaap ter Linden, Viola da gamba / Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Harpsichord
(Recorded in February and September of 1994, re-released in 2005)
Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is known to non-organists as a predecessor and mentor of J.S. Bach. To organists, Buxtehude sits next to Bach as one of the instrument's greatest composers. In 1705, when Bach was not yet 20 and Buxtehude only a couple years from his death, Bach made the trek from Arnstadt to Lubeck to observe and study with Buxtehude. He intended to be away from his post for two weeks, but ended up being so enthralled by what he found in Lubeck that he stayed away for three months, returning (as we might expect) to a hornet's nest of disapproval from his employer.
Buxtehude's organ compositions are the embodiment of the so-called stylus phantasticus, a style that alternated extroverted virtuosic passages with quieter, meditative writing. Themes were introduced and developed and then discarded, often several themes in each piece. His multi-part toccatas were a model for J.S. Bach, but Bach typically did his own thing with this newfound knowledge. Though Bach stands now as the end of a musical era, in his youth he was already moving beyond his teachers, and we can hear the progression. To our present-day ears Buxtehude still has a touch of the antique about his writing while Bach seems musically completely modern. Still, Buxtehude was the brightest light of his day, and referring to him now as "Bach Lite" is utterly incorrect. Many of his chorale treatments for organ are at least the equal to most of Bach's similar output.
If Buxtehude is not universally known for his organ works, his other compositions--operas and cantatas, music for voice, and harpsichord works--are practically unknown. There are a few chamber works as well, and it is this genre which the present disc explores, seven trio sonatas, Op. 2, scored for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.
Even being quite familiar with Buxtehude's organ compositions, I confess I do not hear Buxtehude's voice in this chamber music. It's all quite pleasant and reminds me of Pachelbel or some Locatelli chamber works I have, but I wouldn't have pegged it as Buxtehude. Because I don't listen to a great deal of chamber music, maybe it's my ear that's lacking; but this music lacks the stamp of individuality which Buxtehude's organ music has in spades. There is a courtly aspect to these pieces, a sense of high-class leisure and of educated musicians experimenting with what were then the latest sounds.
The music is expertly played here on period instruments, and as always Naxos gives us an exemplary recording: they capture the room well, and provide a virtually silent background.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Rachmaninov: Vespers (All-Night Vigil)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Harmonia Mundi HMU807384
Rachmaninov wrote his Vespers and All-Night Vigil in 1915. Scored for a cappella choir, it is a lodestone of lush, aching Russian music, musically accessible but harmonically rich and mystically profound. I have a very interesting recording of these settings from some years ago by the English all-male Choir of King's College, Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury, which is one of those old-recipe-made-with-new-ingredients kinda things. Very nice, but different. This present Harmonia Mundi recording sticks with the regular formula, using a mature mixed choir in an appropriately reverberant acoustic.
It's a cliché, I know, but either from weather or vastness or oppressive government or whatever, there is a sense in much Russian music of artistic expression coming from a place of great pain and difficulty, a pall that's almost despair but not quite. Rachmaninov is firmly, undeniably Russian in his bone marrow. He is sometimes criticized for being too musically conservative for his time, or too easily sentimental; I don't know that I buy those criticisms, but in any case there's almost no artifice to this setting. It would be hard to write simpler, more direct music for these resources than this. I too easily picture the remote, snow-swept steppes of Siberia when I listen to Rachmaninov (or maybe Stalingrad during the siege), and this choral setting gives us that ache in its most unadorned form. This is all the ache with the orchestration and almost all structure removed, like a Bodyworks exhibit where the flesh is jesused away and only the nerves remain.
(Rachmaninov requested that the Vespers' fifth movement be played at his funeral. It's not hard to see why. Like his piano Prelude in b minor Op. 32, No 10, this movement seems to tell us in mystical terms about the end of something in a way which brooks no rebuttal.)
Like other Russian choral music, this extended setting places great demands on the choir's bass section, and a choir's low-frequency performance has quite a bearing on how the piece comes off. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir from this recording, while not Russian, is close enough to pass as the real thing. I have a recording of the Vespers by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir which makes quick work of these low tones; it sounds like either an anomaly in the vocal cords or a third testicle were required to get into the bass section of that choir. But barring these super-human feats, the EPCC pulls this score off as well as any non-Russian choir I've heard.
The recording is excellent. If you're not familiar with this piece, I urge you to make acquaintance. I know of no recording I would recommend as highly as this one.
Evgeny Kissin plays Chopin: The Verbier Festival Recital
RCA Red Seal
Four Polonaises Op. 26 1 & 2; Op. 40, No. 2; Op. 53
Impromptus Op. 29, 36 & 51
Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66
Evgeny Kissin arrived on the classical music scene in 1984 when, at the age of 13, he recorded both Chopin piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic. In steps from there he took the music world by storm, playing in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan in 1988 and making his way to America in 1990. No serious devotee of the piano can be unaware of him today.
There was a tendency to dismiss him at the beginning because of his youth, but in very little time he established himself as a serious and gifted artist of the highest order. His unquestionable technical prowess places the entirety of the piano repertoire at his command, and he has demonstrated a deep emotional sensitivity in his interpretations. He is especially at home with Rachmaninov and Chopin, and has recorded much of their piano music.
This present release is a live recording from the Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2006, and features an all-Chopin recital: four Polonaises, three Impromptus and the Fantaisie-Impromptu. The varied lightness of the Impromptus contrasts nicely with the weight of the Polonaises, making for a lovely cross-section of Chopin's writing. The sound is excellent (especially for a live recording, but regardless), and Kissin's control of color and touch are absolute; he gives us a distinctive and emotional rendering of these works. If there was a time when Kissin needed to assert his technical skills, he has matured far beyond that place, seeking now only to illuminate the score. Whatever is required in that endeavor comes readily to hand, and along with Chopin's fireworks he pulls off the very sentimental parts of this music in respectful and engaging fashion.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Cesar Franck: Organ Works
Frank Speller, organ
Gothic Records, G 49125
This is an interesting recording, one from a few years ago but a recent acquisition for me.
Cesar Franck is the Godfather of the extraordinarily fecund compositional (and performance and improvisational) movement surrounding, in the main, six or seven large cathedrals in Paris from around 1850 thru 1950 and beyond. The movement generated great interest and respect for its practitioners throughout Europe and beyond, and these church posts--which are municipal positions--usually combined with teaching positions in Paris's Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in composition and harmony and solfege and improvisation, and made for some very fertile soil for the production of musical art at its highest level.
Symbiotically intertwined with this compositional school was a similar flowering in organ-building technology and philosophy, reaching its pinnacle in the person of one Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (as discussed in this post). The magnificent sounds of these elaborate symphonic organs are indelibly linked to the compositions which they inspired. Anyone familiar with the music of Cesar Franck will automatically find their mind's ear reproducing the distinctive tones of Cavaillé-Coll's great instruments in St. Sulpice or La Madeleine or Trinité.
But there are a lot of organs in the world which Cavaillé-Coll did not build, and I have many recordings of this repertoire on American and other European organs as well. Rather like the music of Bach, it turns out that Franck sounds wonderful on tones other than what he had in mind when he penned these works. Different, but still profound and moving and fabulous. As alluded to in the aforementioned earlier post, the symphonic organs of Ernest M. Skinner and the Aeolian-Skinner organ company, among others, produce very appropriate and convincing sounds for this repertoire. But what if we go further afield?
Our present recording gives us about half of Franck's major compositions played on a 1983 Visser-Rowland organ installed in the Bates Recital hall of the University of Texas, Austin. The organist is Frank Speller, the Associate Professor Emeritus of organ and harpsichord at UT. The instrument is noteworthy for not having any French inclinations nor for being especially symphonic in the Aeolian-Skinner or Cavaillé-Coll vein. But it's a fairly large instrument and certainly possessed of adequate tonal resources to play big works like these, and organ builder Pieter Visser has his own ideas about what an organ is supposed to sound like.
The acoustic of the Bates Recital Hall is certainly dryer and closer than Paris's large cathedrals, and this organ is designed and voiced accordingly. That acoustic cuts both ways: these sounds are not as thunderous as those needed to fill a space ten times as large, but neither are they blended by the building's acoustic and swallowed up. The artist is free to play intricate passages at the tempo that they deem appropriate, without having to accommodate the reverberation. And mostly I think Dr. Speller has done just that, and very convincingly. In its space, the organ has great power and the fiery reed stops in tutti are almost French in their brashness.
My own conviction is that it's much easier to play most music too fast than too slow, and several of these passages come off almost as though he's late for an appointment elsewhere. There are things other than grandeur and majesty in large-scale organ works, but if you take those elements away you are left with a limited palette. After all, Franck wrote these pieces from the console of his Cavaillé-Coll in the Eglise Ste. Clotilde, and their very conception--tempo and pacing and all--naturally conforms to this reality. That's my ear, anyway.
But my real interest here is in the instrument, and in this choice of an instrument for this repertoire. The instrument sports mechanical key action, something even Cavaillé-Coll could not manage without a Barker Lever assist. And the stoplist and tonal sensibilities are much more Dutch than French. So how does it work? Really well, actually. The instrument's voicing, as well as the case-focusing which is part of the North German Werkprinzip (again, a very different instrumental aesthetic), gives everything a great clarity--you can hear and identify every individual pipe, it seems. And that makes for a revealing transparency and independence of line, and for very distinctive solo sounds.
It's immediately clear that this is not Cesar Franck's instrument. But just as we play Bach on a modern Steinway and marvel at his compositions, we can listen to Franck on a modern instrument and see more clearly what is Franck versus the sepia-tone contributions of Cavaillé-Coll or Paris herself.