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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
String Quartet in D major, (1889-90) [49:10]
Piano Quintet in F minor, (1879)* [37:03]
Vilnius String Quartet (Audrone Vainiunaite (violin I); Arturas Šilale (violin II); Girdutis Jakaitis (viola); Augustinas Vasiliauskas (cello)); Mûza Rubackyté (piano)*
rec. 2008. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93716 [49:10 + 37:03]
Experience Classicsonline

With the exception of some fledgling compositions Liège-born Franck composed his chamber music quite late in his career. He went on to compose a small number of passionate scores regarded by many amongst the finest in late 19th Century chamber music. Of Franck’s chamber music I believe that the enduringly popular Violin Sonata in A major (1886) is head and shoulders above the others followed by the Piano Quintet in F minor (1879).

The Vilnius Quartet from Lithuania made their debut in 1965 with leader Audrone Vainiunaite their founding member. Acclaimed pianist Mûza Rubackyté, who joins the Vilnius Quartet for the Piano Quintet, was also born in Lithuania. I had the good fortune to attend two of her solo recitals last year and was most impressed with her musicality and professionalism. She now resides in Paris.

The String Quartet in D major was completed in 1890 only a few months before his death. Biographer Hugues Imbert regarded it as, "the master’s swan-song". Evidently the effort that Franck expended on the score was considerable and it seems that he prepared himself for the task with study of the quartets of the great masters of the genre: Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. The premiere was given at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris in April 1890 to considerable praise. It proved to be one of the few successful premieres that he had experienced in what was a long career. It is a fine work if rather lacking in memorable themes. In some ways the score feels reminiscent in character to the late Beethoven string quartets without having the same quality. In the opening movement the Vilnius Quartet perform with intense concentration. I was immediately struck by the glorious timbre of Vainiunaite’s instrument. The Scherzo is alive with the elfin shades of Mendelssohn. The noble Larghetto has a moving sense of melancholy. I enjoyed the contrasting moods of the Finale splendidly performed by the Vilnius Quartet with the utmost care and attention.

My favourite version of the Franck String Quartet is the 2005 account from the Spiegel Quartet recorded at Bad Arolsen in Germany. In an assured performance the Spiegels convey a splendid blend of virility and charm - nobility and passion. The MDG engineers provide acceptable sonics on MDG Scene 644 1391-2.

Composed in 1879 Franck’s three movement Piano Quintet in F Minor was described by Charles Tournemire as, ‘the king of piano quintets’. At its 1880 première at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris, Saint-Saëns, the dedicatee, played the piano part.

At the time of completing the Quintet Franck was 57. It was the first chamber piece he had written for three decades. This highly romantic score is stormy and emotional which contrasts sharply with the majority of his earlier scores that were mainly sacred. It is said that its intensely romantic mood is a reflection of his infatuation with his attractive and talented pupil Augusta Holmès; a woman 25 years younger than him.

In the opening movement the music is meltingly beautiful with attractive themes of a yearning quality. The central movement is searching and intensely grave. The players are splendid in the anxiety-laden closing movement conveying a dark restless quality that tends to sap the listener of energy in a movement that never aims to invigorate. One is struck by how successful the Vilnius and talented pianist Rubackyté are in putting aside their individual talents and performing as an integrated team.

For a highly satisfying alternative version of Franck’s Piano Quintet I would not look further than the account from Quatuor Ludwig with pianist Michael Levinas on Naxos 8.553645 (c/w Chausson Piano Quartet). Recorded in 1996, at the Alençon Auditorium in France, the Ludwigs and Michael Levinas perform the score with great assurance and conveys the spontaneity of a live performance.

Another recommendable version of the Quintet is the 2003 Champs Hill, Pulborough performance from the Schubert Ensemble with pianist William Howard. It is a performance of considerable proficiency and vigour throughout the broad emotional range of the score on ASV Gold GLD 4019 (c/w Franck Violin Sonata).

These well performed recordings are rendered in decent sound with the piano balanced satisfactorily. The booklet notes are reasonably acceptable.

Michael Cookson


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