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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor* (1878-79) [35.47]
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [28.51]
The Schubert Ensemble: Simon Blendis, violin*; Jan Peter Schmolk, violin; Douglas Paterson, viola; Jane Salmon, cello; William Howard, piano*
rec. Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex, England, 3-5 Oct, 7-8 Nov*, 2003. DDD
ASV GOLD GLD 4019 [65.19]

ASV Gold has been around for the last couple of years as a subset within Sanctuary Classics. Here they present two of César Franck’s best loved scores in impressive performances from the British-based Schubert Ensemble.

In 1879, the Belgian-born Franck returned to chamber music after an absence of thirty years to produce a masterwork in the shape of the Piano Quintet in F Minor. Described by Charles Tournemire as, "the king of Piano Quintets." the classically-structured score foreshadowed Debussy’s musical innovations through its use of the ‘cyclical form’: the recurrence of a single theme, in various places, through all of the work’s three movements. Biographer Léon Vallas is of the opinion that some of the passionate moods of the music reflect Franck’s feelings at the time for Augusta Holmès who was one of his pupils. At the première the Saint-Saëns played the piano part.

The Schubert Ensemble traverse with considerable proficiency and vigour the work’s broad emotional range. They offer impressive rhythmic momentum in the outer movements with especially vibrant and exciting playing in the furious extended coda of the ‘con fuoco finale. I particularly enjoyed the flowing and expressive playing of the central movement. This is a score with an abundance of passion and a significant emotional impact with which the players demonstrate a convincing affinity. This is a really excellent interpretation that deserves attention.

The recording of the Piano Quintet that I would not wish to be without is from Quatuor Ludwig with pianist Michaël Levinas on Naxos 8.553645. The impressive mono account from the Hollywood Quartet with Victor Aller on Testament SBT 1077 is also highly rewarding.

Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major, composed in 1886, is a warhorse of the chamber music repertoire and remains a hard nut to crack for performers. Composed as a wedding present for his friend and fellow-countryman, the violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, the four movement sonata is an epic work regarded by many as the finest violin sonata in all French music. Personally, I would go so far as to say that the score, which is so fresh and packed with original character, has worthy claims to be one of the finest violin sonatas ever written.

The Franck sonata runs the range of emotions from unbridled passion to sublime serenity and successfully employs cyclical themes. The violin soars over the piano part with the most uplifting of melodies. The complex and delightful finale, with the violin and piano parts playing off each other, is justly famous. In the dreamy first movement allegretto ben moderato I was impressed by the way Blendis and Howard blend the contemplative mood with the underlying element of tension. The turbulent second movement allegro is perceptive and incisive. The noble recitative-fantasia is affectionately played and the youthful gaiety of the final movement allegretto poco mosso is convincingly put across. A most enjoyable account.

Franck’s Violin Sonata is a frequently recorded work and the catalogues contain numerous excellent versions. The celebrated evergreen from Kyung Wha Chung and Radu Lupu remains a confident recommendation on analogue Decca 460 006-2. I am also extremely fond of the recent digital accounts from Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt on EMI Classics 5 57679 2 and Rudens Turku and Milana Chernyavska on Avie AV2080.

The booklet notes from Ates Orga are highly informative, yet come across as rather technical. I noticed that the composition date for the sonata is given twice as 1866, which is incorrect. The sound quality is up to the usual high standards of the ASV label.

A fine recording that will appeal to many especially for the excellent performance of the Piano Quintet.

Michael Cookson



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