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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1886-1888) [35:06]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Symphony in B flat (1890) [33:05]
Suisse Romande Orchestra/Marek Janowski
rec. Dinemec Studio, Gland/Geneva, Switzerland, July 2006. SACD
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC5186078 [68:25]



The Franck Symphony was one of my adolescent loves. I listened to it over and again in the school music room. The performance which fixed the work into my consciousness was contained in a Readers’ Digest album and was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. As I grew up, if that’s what one really does, the work tended to lose its freshness. But I also came to feel that none of the performances I heard captured the same conviction and ardour as that Boult performance, no longer accessible to me. They seemed slow and heavy, Germanic and often lost their way amidst the meandering structures. Or was I just seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles? I missed an RCA issue of the performance on LP but picked it up many years later on Chesky. It was also included in the Boult volume of “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” (7243 5 75459 2 1). Hearing it again rekindled my love of the symphony.
 
I have since read that as a young man Boult had heard Franck’s pupil Pierné conduct the symphony and modelled his own reading on that performance, so his Franck can claim authenticity no less than his Elgar. I know of two other conductors who took a similarly virile, impassioned view: Toscanini and Mario Rossi. Toscanini may have heard Pierné, too, but he was unlikely to model himself on anybody and presumably worked out from the score that this was how it should go. I imagine Rossi was well acquainted with Toscanini’s interpretation. I have also found much to appreciate in Munch’s recording. This is a little broader and freer, perhaps less structurally sound, but it also has much of his inimitable verve and the unmistakably French sound of the Boston orchestra.
 
Having encountered Janowski previously only in a thoroughly German-sounding Brahms cycle I feared something heavy and Teutonic. I got quite a surprise. After an expectant, mobile opening the following tremolando string passages move forward strongly, with flexible paragraph-shaping and an acute sense of orchestral colour. In the Allegro sections Janowski is closer to Munch than Boult in his wider range of tempi, yet his control of the structure is magnificent. No less than Boult, he succeeds in making each climax more overwhelming than the last, rising to a triumphant conclusion.
 
The Allegretto is again fairly mobile – not so much as to rob the famous cor anglais melody of its grave charm, but enough to give a certain volatility to the scherzo sections Franck has built into the movement. The Finale is a notable success. Janowski is a shade broader than Boult and succeeds in welding the whole into a developing argument. He never gets stuck, even when the second movement melody is recalled. The moment where this theme comes back as a thumping climax rung out on the trumpet has embarrassed some commentators. Boult is terrific here; he takes it at face value, letting the trumpet play his heart out with a rallentando at the end. Janowski skilfully integrates it into the general flow – an original and effective solution. Incidentally, Janowski takes one second (!) longer than Boult over the symphony, though in detail he is a little faster in the first two movements and a little slower in the last. Munch takes slightly longer over all three.
 
The Boult recording sounds extraordinarily well for 1959, but it is nearly fifty years old and there is no doubt that the new SACD recording - which I heard as a plain CD - has added depth, range and detail. Janowski also shares with Munch a very French-sounding orchestra, with wonderful braying brass. The Suisse Romande has had a number of conductors since Ansermet who were not exactly cultivators of the French sound – Sawallisch for example – so it’s heartening to hear that they can still produce these timbres when required.
 
I shall no more jettison Boult than I shall abandon hearth and home, but for those who have no sentimental attachment to it, or who wish to have superb modern sound, or who find it easier to relate to living artists, I’m delighted to be able to recommend a version of this much maligned and often maltreated work that matches the great versions of the past. It’ll be a toss-up whether I get out this or Boult myself for future listening.
 
The Franck Symphony made an enormous impression on French musicians and spawned a number of imitations, of which Chausson’s – of just two years later – is generally considered the most important. Some have even rated it above the Franck, though I find its themes lack the sheer “stickability” which Franck attained in every one of his themes in his Symphony. In a sense more subtle, it is also more cluttered. But this is not to deny that it can still offer both excitement and magic. Moreover, Chausson is very much his own man. Though it’s a cyclical work in three movements, like the Franck, it has none of the latter’s religious fervour, combining hedonism, Hellenism and sultry decadence in fairly equal proportions. And, while many a lesser work opens with a wonderful surge of inspiration that gradually peters out, Chausson reserves his finest cards for the end. Janowski plays it with total conviction, mixing the colours with a sure hand and never letting it get sticky.
 
I’m sorry I didn’t have the Ansermet versions of these works to hand, to compare the orchestra then and now, but I think the great Swiss maestro would have been proud of his old band.
 
Christopher Howell

 

 


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