> FRANCK Symphony, Psyche [CA]: Classical Reviews- May 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Symphony in D minor
(four orchestral extracts)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig
Recorded 3-4 July 2001, Salle Erasme du Palais de la Musique et des Congrès de Strasbourg
AVIE AV 0003 [66’52"]

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There is a danger of thinking this release superfluous, and doing so without even hearing it. César Franck’s Symphony has long been a gramophone favourite with regular recordings and no shortage of ‘big-name’ conductors – Ansermet, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Boult, Celibidache, Chailly, Furtwängler, Giulini, Karajan, Klemperer, Mengelberg, Monteux, Munch, Ormandy, Silvestri and Stokowski come easily to mind. Yet, it remains a relative rarity in the concert-hall. (Ditto Schumann’s symphonies, which also enjoy wonderful recorded coverage.)

Avie is a new label. Good luck to it of course. Something fresh at a time of crisis could prove to have that ‘factor X’ quality, although a much-recorded symphony with artists that are not household names seems a risky choice. That said, not all of today’s ‘stars’ (ghastly word in this context) are celebrated because of their musicianship – a combination of hype and easily pleased listeners does the trick!

Franck’s Symphony is cyclical, ideas transformed across its three movements, the large first as long as the other two put together. It’s easy to lose this overall spherical design if you start to pull episodes out of context or, like Silvestri, distort the line: in this respect, Ansermet, Boult and Monteux are peerless in undeviating mastery. I’m not such a huge fan of Monteux’s much loved reading preferring Ansermet and Boult. (By the way, the latter’s recording is with the RCA Victor SO, which turns out to be a contractual-pseudonym for the Philharmonia Orchestra.)

I have a soft spot for Karajan’s Paris Orchestra version while being aware of its portentousness; in a similar mould is Giulini (three recordings) who is altogether more spiritual and without bombast. Celibidache is his wonderful self as regards colour, balance and epiphenomena. And it’s Giulini and Celibidache that Jan Latham-Koenig reminds me of in his lofty view of the music and the fastidiousness of his timbral blends. Unfortunately, such comparisons fail to last the symphony’s course … Latham-Koenig’s spacious tempi become lethargic, the symphony sprawls and moments of rhetoric do not quite square with what is otherwise an agreeably thoughtful reading, one attentive and committed.

Halfway through the first movement comes the perception that Latham-Koenig’s armoury of expression has been spent; what is to come is predictable and lacking intensity. At the slow opening, he conjures a pregnant atmosphere; when the ‘Allegro non troppo’ is reached it is a hairsbreadth retarded; this process is repeated. The movement never quite takes wing. Although one can admire some fine playing and the conductor’s considered view, that crucial degree of fire is missing; nor am I convinced by some brazen crescendos that seem out of place in this ultimately too careful (but not necessarily too slow) first movement.

The harp-adorned slow movement’s main melody is pleasingly phrased by the cor anglais player, although the spectral delights of the quicker-moving middle section is rather leaden; I appreciate the strings’ sheen if not always Latham-Koenig’s ritardandos. The ‘Finale’ is trenchant and too consciously moulded, unanimity dominates idiom. Narrowing one’s comparisons to the French axis, this CD leaves Fournet, Martinon, Otterloo and Plasson untroubled.

The music from Psyché is not as well as known as it should be. These orchestral excerpts (25 minutes worth) from an altogether bigger piece for chorus and orchestra are wonderfully lyrical and soulful with a sensuous orchestral palette and ecstatic lines. Had Latham-Koenig invested the Symphony with the same warmth and congress with which he makes Psyché so alluring (leaving aside André Cluytens’s more intrinsic 1954 recording – Testament SBT 1128), then this Avie release would be getting a less qualified recommendation than I am able to give it. The recording is good, well balanced and uncluttered.

Colin Anderson


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