FRANCK: Symphonic Variations / Piano Concerto No. 2 (Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra/ Francois-Joel Thiollier/ Martijn van den Hoek/ Roberto Benzi) (Naxos: 8.553472)
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César Franck (1822-1890)
Symphonic Variations Les Djinns Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 11
Belgian by birth, French by choice and of more remote possible German ancestry, César Franck was born in 1822 in the Walloon city of Liège. His musical gifts, obvious at an early age, were encouraged by his father, who saw the possibility of a career for his son as a virtuoso performer. Study at the Conservatoire in Liège and early concert performance, with compositions to match his fathers ambitions, was followed by a period of respite from concert activity in Paris, with lessons from Antonín Reicha in the techniques of composition and rigorous piano discipline from Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann. In 1837 he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he began to win some distinction, continuing his piano lessons with Zimmermann and studying the organ rather less effectively under François Benoist. The natural course for Franck would have been to enter for the important Prix de Rome, victory in which would have brought three years study in Rome. It was, however, in 1842, when such a triumph seemed to lie before him, that his father withdrew him from the Conservatoire, now seeking for his son once more a career as a performer, initially in Belgium again, where it was hoped to interest influential patrons. Two years later the Francks were back in Paris again.
Francks failure to impress, either as a pianist or as a composer, brought in the following years the need to earn a living as a teacher. His marriage in 1848 to one of his pupils, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, the daughter of parents of importance in the Comédie Française, heirs to a long family theatrical tradition, brought a breach with his father. From now on he continued to earn a living by teaching and as an organist, at first at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, where he had been married. In 1851 he moved to Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais, with its fine new Cavaillé-Coll organ and in 1858 he was appointed organist at Sainte-Clotilde, where Cavaillé-Coll installed a new instrument, generally regarded as the finest example of its kind. It was at Sainte-Clotilde over the following years that Franck built a reputation as an organist. In 1872, after a period in which he had won the loyalty and affection of a group of pupils, led by Duparc, and during which his music had been performed under the auspices of the Société Nationale de Musique, a body devoted to the promotion of Ars Gallica, he was appointed to the position of professor of organ at the Conservatoire.
From the 1870s onwards Franck devoted himself to composition, influenced in particular by hearing, in 1874, Wagners Tristan und Isolde, which made a profound impression on him. At the Conservatoire he aroused some jealousy in his colleagues by attracting to his classes a group of young composers, among them Vincent dIndy, one of the most devoted of the group known as the bande à Franck, to whom their teacher was known as Pater Seraphicus.
It was largely through dIndy that Franck, in 1886, succeeded Saint-Saëns as president of the Société Nationale, after resignations from the committee over the admittance of foreign music. As a composer Franck enjoyed limited contemporary success and a concert of his works, given in 1887, was an under-rehearsed disaster during which even the Symphonic Variations barely held together. The decade before Francks death in 1890, however, brought a series of works that have long been part of continuing concert repertoire, above all the Violin Sonata, the single Symphony and the Symphonic Variations.
The Symphonic Variations was completed in 1885 and first performed in May 1886 at a concert of the Société National. The soloist on that occasion was Louis Diémer, for whom the work was written, a pianist who, the following year, succeeded his own teacher Marmontel at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Alfred Cortot and Robert Casadesus. The work starts with the presentation by the pianist and orchestra of contrasting motifs, followed by the suggestion of the theme, heard in its first full form from the piano. The variations lead from one to another without any interruption. The first is marked by the return of the orchestra and the second by violas and cellos outlining the melody. A lighter third variation is followed by a fourth in which the first rhythmic figure of the work becomes part of the theme, a section that merges imperceptibly with the fifth variation. The sixth and final version of the material allows the cellos to play a major form of the theme, with gentle accompanying arpeggios from the pianist. A trill then leads to the final section, in which a second theme appears, with an interlude for the soloist and a return, in the symphonic manner, to earlier material. The work ends with the pianist and orchestra in close imitation of one another.
Francks first symphonic poem was an orchestral interpretation of Victor Hugos Ce quon entend sur la montagne, completed in 1847. More significant, however, were his later attempts at the form,
Les Eolides, based on Leconte de Lisle, in 1876,
Le chasseur maudit, based on Gottfried Bürger, in 1882, Psyché in 1888, preceded, in 1884, by Les Djinns, based on Victor Hugo, a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra. Hugos poem evokes a mysterious world:
Murs, ville, Walls, town,
Et port, And harbour,
De mort, Of death,
Mer grise Grey sea
Où brise Where breaks
La brise, The breeze,
Tout dort. All sleeps.
A sound arises, like the bell of an accursed convent, the noise of a crowd, as the Djinns appear, flying past like a burning cloud, hideous army of vampires and dragons. The poet, in fear, calls on the Prophet to keep him safe in his house. The danger passes, heard as the great oaks in a nearby forest shudder at their flight. It is the sound of the wave on the shore, the plaint, almost stifled, of a saint for a death. The poet listens, as distance puts an end to the noise. Francks translation of the poem into musical terms follows the outline of Hugos evocative verses. The composition, with its virtuoso piano writing, aroused the composers interest in the piano once more, leading to the Symphonic Variations in the following year.
In his earlier career as a virtuoso pianist, it was natural that Franck should provide music in the expected style of the time, operatic variations and fantasies and concertos. His Deuxième Grand Concerto in B minor, Opus 11, was probably written in 1835, when Franck was thirteen, the period of the Première Grande Sonate and of the Variations brillantes sur la ronde favorite de Gustav III, among a series of virtuoso compositions for the piano. The concerto has its own interest, beyond that of an exhibition of precocity. The first movement duly opens with an impressive orchestral exposition, leading to the entry of the soloist and increasingly demanding, if largely conventional, writing for the solo instrument. There is a brief orchestral introduction to the G major Adagio, before the entry of the soloist, who later moves forward to material in contrast to the major key of the whole movement. The drama of the final Rondo finds further place for the now expected piano figuration, the purpose of the whole work, before the final return to the