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CD: Crotchet


César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1886-88) [38:48]
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885)* [16:46]
Jean-Philippe Collard (piano)*
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. 25-26 July 1985, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Given that the symphony had fallen out of favour in 19th-century France it was brave of Franck to attempt one. Admittedly the form was making a comeback, with three from Saint-Saëns for instance, but for someone as self-effacing as Franck the work’s hostile reception must have been doubly painful. Gounod is reputed to have dismissed it as an ‘affirmation of impotence carried to the point of dogma’. Somewhat misguided, considering the work’s popularity ever since.
It’s not difficult to understand why the conservative critics so despised this piece. Harmonically it owes a debt to Wagner – for some a cause for contempt in itself – but more than that it uses a simple motivic cell that is constantly developed over three movements. It’s certainly not as innovative as it sounds – Wagner and Liszt used this technique in different ways – but for many it was just too unconventional for a symphony. Even now I’m surprised at how this work irritates listeners and players, who seem unable or unwilling to recognise its structural and musical strengths.
Michel Plasson has always struck me a rather uninspiring, workmanlike conductor, certainly not the obvious choice for a work that needs as much advocacy as this one. The recording, which dates from the mid-1980s, is typical of EMI’s early digital efforts; it’s bright and analytical, qualities emphasised by this CfP remastering. That said the portentous string theme that opens the symphony is reasonably warm and weighty, although the violins sound glassy under pressure. Still, Plasson draws some fine playing from his orchestra, avoiding the turgid tempi that so often disfigure this score.
The second movement – an allegretto with scherzo-like moments – boasts some of the composer’s loveliest orchestral writing. The softly plucked harp and later the melancholic cor anglais are atmospherically recorded. More important, Plasson makes this movement sound much more coherent and purposeful than it usually does. Not only that, he points up the music’s playful qualities as well.
For anyone who has had to endure a sluggish and/or humourless reading of this work Plasson’s approach will come as a pleasant surprise. Despite my earlier misgivings I’d say he makes a very persuasive case for this much-maligned symphony. The third movement is alert and animated, marred only by the over-bright strings. And although the noble climaxes lack sheer amplitude they are judiciously paced and thrillingly caught.
It’s been a while since I last heard this work and this recording has certainly rekindled my interest in it. Ditto the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, the success of which helped persuade Franck to try his hand at a symphony. Here Plasson and his band are joined by the French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, in what is effectively a one-movement piano concerto. Unlike the symphony it was well received at its premiere in the Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 1 May 1886. The second performance was a disaster, though, possibly the result of growing public irritation at the personality cult surrounding the composer.
The work is unashamedly Romantic in mood and scale, with some delectable writing for the soloist. The piano is reasonably well placed and recorded but in the bravura passages the treble has an unwelcome glare. The piano part has a meandering quality that could easily be mistaken for a lack of invention but Collard ripostes by bringing out so many felicities in the score. Just listen to that delicate passage that begins at 9:52, surely some of the most delightful, music on this disc.
The Symphonic Variations may not match the symphony in terms of structural and musical ambition but it’s a winning work nonetheless. Collard is certainly alive to the score’s virtuosic and meditative elements, and that counts for much. Recording issues aside, this remains a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
The Symphony in D minor has plenty of competition – ArkivMusic list no less than 78 available versions – but the Symphonic Variations seems much less popular. Franckophiles will already have their favourite recordings of both works, but as an entrée to symphonic Franck this disc is well worth considering. And, as with all CfP releases, it won’t break the bank.
Dan Morgan


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