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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F (1878/9) [37:48]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Piano Quartet in A, Op. 30 (1898) [36:16]
Jan Michiels (piano)
Spiegel String Quartet
rec. Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen, January 2005

There's a tendency in some quarters to dismiss Franck's Piano Quintet as not "true" chamber music, as if it somehow were so indiscreet as to overstep the form's proper bounds and ambitions. This is not, presumably, because of the composer's extended chromatics. After all, Zemlinsky, to take an example, wrote quartets in a similarly advanced harmonic language without similar opprobrium. It’s because of Franck's way of constructing peak sonorities by pitting strings in octaves against big supporting chords from the piano, in much the same manner as he uses string and wind groupings in his symphonic works. The octave writing isn't such a problem for a large string body within which minute tuning discrepancies among the players will cancel each other out. But it's a nightmare for solo players, who haven't anywhere to hide. Still, in a good performance of the quintet, the climaxes feel logical and inevitable, and you don't notice the sonority, which is the point.
All this is by way of telling you that Michiels and the Spiegel Quartet do quite a good job with Franck's quintet. In the first movement, the string players have a marvelous feel for the ebb and flow of the motifs being tossed back and forth. Michiels layers the arpeggiated accompanying figurations into separate "voices" - rather as one might, say, in a Chopin nocturne - drawing welcome variety from the piano part. The forte octaves of the coda, with Michiels's resounding chords providing solid support, pose no tuning problems for these string players. In the more conventionally chamber-like writing of the other two movements, the artists infuse their playing with vibrant depth and feeling.
Chausson and Franck sometimes get lumped together, just as Mahler and Bruckner are, and with about as little real justification. They were both French Romantics who favored highly chromatic harmony, but the differences between them are striking. Franck's linear, "horizontal" writing, reflecting the musical thinking of a lifelong professional organist, weaves rich sonorities out of individual musical strands; it's music based in counterpoint. Chausson's writing, like that of most of the French post-Wagnerians, is based in harmony, more "vertical," as if the chords were conceived in whole cloth. He replaces Franck's formal rigor - always present, even in that composer's most agitated moments - with a long-breathed surge and sweep. In climaxes, Chausson calls on the strings, rather than the piano, to fill out the sonority, and even when he occasionally deploys the strings in octaves, the effect is different: the lower voices intensify the upper ones, rather than vice versa.  No, definitely not the same beast at all.
The Spiegel players adjust to the very different requirements of Chausson's four-movement quartet with aplomb - the light, lean tone the strings produced in the Franck here becomes richer and more vibrant, and the players dig into the supporting chords nicely. The first movement, after the piano's unexpectedly jaunty opening statement, softens its edges and settles into the broad sweep previously noted, developing its motifs convincingly. The sustained, stoic lyricism of the slow movement, Très calme, expands into more yearning gestures before returning to grimness. In place of a true scherzo, there follows a waltz, quirky in its harmonic turns, yet elegant in the French manner. The closing Animé pits a busy, turbulent first group, with arpeggios vaulting through the texture, opposite an impassioned second group with a strong forward impulse, drawing big, dramatic effects from the contrast. There's a surprise at 9:17, when a shimmering violin scale initiates an episode of unexpected tenderness, before the music proceeds to a firm, forthright resolution.
Beautiful and comparatively unfamiliar music, excellent performances - what more could you want?
Stephen Francis Vasta


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