Helmuth Rilling

César Franck: Les Béatitudes

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César Franck completed his largest work, the oratorio Les Béatitudes in 1869, but it wasn't publicly performed until 1891, after his death. The piece generated an unusually wide spectrum of responses, ranging from favorable comparisons with the choral masterpieces of Bach and Beethoven to dismissive contempt. It has never established itself in the choral repertoire, perhaps because of its length and the huge performing forces required, but perhaps also because its level of musical inspiration isn't high enough to make its overheatedly fervent and mediocre text palatable to broad audiences. The music has a relentless Wagnerian intensity and earnest weightiness that are too rarely leavened by moments of textural and emotional transparency. Those moments, such as the closing to the Third Beatitude are all the more lovely for the contrast they provide. The libretto, by an amateur poet, stretches the 10 verses of Matthew's gospel out to operatic length, and complicates the meaning with the addition of numerous metaphorical characters. Some fans of large-scale Romantic choral music, though, may find Les Béatitudes an intriguing work, and it receives a solid presentation here, with Helmuth Rilling leading Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR in a committed and idiomatic performance. The soloists are of a high quality, singing with purity and conviction, and there are no weak links. The sound is generally fine, but the soloists are sometimes too prominent. This is most likely due to the need to boost their miking to allow them to be heard over Franck's dense orchestration.

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