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Decca Phase 4
Symphony in D minor (1886-88) [38:48]
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885)*
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. 25-26 July 1985, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France.
FOR PLEASURE 5218542 [55:45]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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