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Richard FRANCK (1858-1938)
Symphonische Fantasie op. 31 (1899) [12:54]
Serenade for violin and orchestra in A minor op. 25 (1896) [6:57]
Suite for orchestra op. 20 (1898) [20:08]
Liebesidyll - Amor und Psyche op. 40 (1905) [12:26]
Serenade for violoncello and orchestra in D minor op. 24 (1896) [6:10]
Wellen des Meeres und der Liebe – Concertoverture in E minor op. 21 (1895) [10:27]
Fabian Wettstein (violin); Tim Strüble (cello)
Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Christopher Fifield
rec. 25-27 March 2008, Studio WPR, Reutlingen, Germany. DDD
STERLING CDS1078-2 [69:09]


The conductor Christopher Fifield, who is also a noted writer about music - and a contributor to MusicWeb International - has already been responsible for bringing a number of neglected works into the catalogue, including his fine recording of the Symphony No 1 by Frederick Cliffe (see review). Now he gives us a welcome selection of orchestral music by Richard Franck, a composer whose name and music were hitherto unknown to me.

As Franck’s name may be unfamiliar to others, perhaps a little biographical detail will be helpful. For this I draw on the very useful booklet note by Paul Feuchte. Franck was born in Cologne. His father, Eduard Franck (1817-1893) was a well-known composer, pianist and teacher. His mother, Tony Thiedemann, was a pianist. They met through friendship with the Mendelssohns; Eduard was a friend of Felix Mendelssohn and Tony was a member of the circle of Felix’s sister, Fanny. Richard Franck studied philosophy at Leipzig University but at the same time pursued musical studies at the city’s conservatoire, the director of which at that time was Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), a lasting influence on young Franck. Later Franck spent the best part of twenty years on the staff of the German music school in Basel, until 1900. He then moved back to Germany, to Kassel, where he carved out quite a career for himself as a performer and conductor. Unfortunately his health began to deteriorate and in 1910 he retreated to Heidelberg, where he followed a less hectic schedule of performing and teaching, living there until his death in 1938.

His mature composition career spans the period from around 1880 until his death, though after 1910 his creative activity was sporadic. It seems that his style was pretty conservative, influenced by Reinecke and by his friend, the Swiss composer Hans Huber (1852-1921) and that’s certainly the impression conveyed by the contents of this CD. On this evidence Franck was firmly in the tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann – and none the worse for that – though it’s clear that he was not immune from the influence of Wagner also. The music on this disc is uniformly pleasing, though it breaks no new ground and doesn’t storm the emotional heights, and the craftsmanship sounds to be tasteful and of a high order.

It’s also suggested in the notes that Franck had difficulty escaping the shadow of his father. Several of Eduard Franck’s pieces have been recorded and Rob Barnett’s review of this present disc includes links to reviews on Music Web International of some of those CDs and to a disc of chamber music by Richard himself.  So far as I know, that disc has been the sole representation of his output in the catalogue until now.

There is one work on this disc that, with sufficient exposure, might establish some degree of modern reputation for Franck. The Serenade for Violin and Orchestra may not be technically the finest work in the collection – I’ll leave that to others to debate – but it’s a real charmer despite its modest dimensions. The music is predominantly broad, lyrical and easeful. The soloist has an enviable line, which is spun beautifully by Fabian Wettstein, who is also the konzertmeister of the orchestra. He’s aided by sensitive support from his colleagues. Christopher Fifield rightly mentions Max Bruch as a comparator. This wholly engaging piece could have been the slow movement to a concerto though it is, in fact. an independent composition.

Its companion, the Serenade for Cello and Orchestra is, I suspect, pretty contemporaneous to judge by the opus number – one regrettable omission from the documentation is any information as to the dates of composition of the various works. This is also a very appealing piece but it’s somewhat darker hued, perhaps fittingly, given the choice of solo instrument. The soloist here is the orchestra’s principal cellist and he’s another fine and sympathetic player.

The Suite for Orchestra is cast in four movements. The first and third movements are light and easy going while the second, as Mr Fifield observes, has some kinship with Brahms in Hungarian Dance mood. The finale, which is lively and enjoyable, is the most substantial of the movements.

Liebesidyll - Amor und Psyche is a bigger piece in conception. It opens with a soulful unaccompanied cello solo – and there’s a second such passage a little later on. This work is very definitely in the mould of late nineteenth century German romantic music and in it Franck deploys the richest orchestral palette so far encountered on the disc. Though unashamedly romantic it’s not a hothouse piece: note, for example, the engaging section in compound time between 5:46 and 6:41, which has a fine lilt to it. This may not be a masterpiece but it’s a very pleasing piece to hear.

The last piece on the programme, Wellen des Meeres und der Liebe (‘Waves of the Sea and of Love’) was premièred in Lucerne in 1895 under the direction of Mengelberg, no less. It’s an enjoyable work if not, in the last analysis, especially memorable. I don’t know if there’s a programme of any kind behind the music.

That last comment highlights the one shortcoming in an otherwise excellently produced release. There are booklet essays in German and in English by the same author, but not identical I content. The English essay contains a good deal of biographical information – very necessary – but insufficient information about and commentary on the music itself. That’s a regrettable omission since the music will be new to most listeners, I imagine. My knowledge of German is only rudimentary but so far as I can tell the same comment applies to the German note.

However, that’s the only criticism I have of this issue. The sound is very good and so far as I can judge – this is unfamiliar music and I have seen no scores – the orchestra plays very well and with enthusiasm: certainly the sound they produce is very pleasing. Christopher Fifield conducts with refinement and evident enthusiasm for the music.

No masterpieces have been unearthed here. On the evidence of this CD Richard Franck was a conservative and fairly minor composer but he was not a negligible composer and his music is enjoyable, skilful and attractive. Enthusiasts for music of this style and period will certainly want to hear it and so should other collectors with an enquiring ear.

John Quinn

see also Review by Rob Barnett



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