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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
String Quartet in D, FWV9 (1889-90) [43:39]
Piano Quintet in f minor, FWV7 (1878-9) [35:30]
Cristina Ortiz (piano); Fine Arts Quartet
rec. Salle de musique, L’heure bleue, la Chaux-de-Fonde, Switzerland, 19-22 March 2008. DDD.
NAXOS 8.572009 [79:19]

Experience Classicsonline

Comparison recordings
Quartet - Dante Qt, Hyperion CDA67664
Quintet - Levinas, Qt Ludwig, Naxos 8.553645

The arrival of the new Naxos recording of César Franck’s String Quartet and Piano Quintet presents the additional opportunity to compare it with the award-winning Hyperion recording of the Quartet, coupled with the Gabriel Fauré String Quartet, and with the highly regarded older Naxos recording of the Quintet, coupled with Ernest Chausson’s String Quartet.

I began by listening to the Levinas/Ludwig Quartet version of the Piano Quintet and found it to be every bit as fine as the reviewers in 1998 pronounced it - ardent and enthusiastic playing and with a well-balanced recording in which the piano is never allowed to be too prominent. I have no hesitation in regarding this as my benchmark for judging the new recording. Their account of the slow movement which, with some justification, is often regarded as the heart of the work, strikes just the right balance of affectiveness - never overdone but always heartfelt.

With a fine coupling of d’Indy’s partial completion of Chausson’s String Quartet, a work left incomplete at his death, this still warrants a strong recommendation. The Chausson is no match for the Franck Quintet, but still very well worth hearing. The lossless version from passionato sounds excellent. I haven’t sampled the less expensive mp3 versions from passionato and classicsonline but, at 256kbps and 320kbps respectively, I have always found mp3s from these providers to be more than acceptable.

The leader of the Dante Quartet is none other than Krysia Osostowicz, erstwhile member of Domus, whose Hyperion Fauré Piano Quartets and Piano Quintets won so much admiration; they feature among my recent choice of Thirty Top Hyperion Recordings.

Their account of the Franck Quartet makes a very good case indeed for this somewhat neglected work - a reading so powerful that one wonders why it isn’t more often performed. We seem to have missed this at MusicWeb International when it was released, but I’m happy to concur with the general acclaim which greeted it and to regard it as my benchmark. With an equally fine version of the Fauré coupling, another powerful work from its composer’s last years, good recording and the usual high quality of documentation, this is highly recommendable. It augurs well for the Dante Quartet’s forthcoming Hyperion recording of the Debussy and Ravel Quartets, which I hope to include in a forthcoming Download Roundup.

The combination of Cristina Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos has already produced a coupling of the Fauré Piano Quintets to challenge the superb Hyperion/Domus disc: Ian Lace made it Recording of the Month (8.570938 - see review).

The new version has all the virtues of the older Naxos account in the opening movement. The recording is, perhaps, a little more forwardly balanced and the piano slightly more prominently placed, but otherwise there is very little to choose between this and the older version. Both capture the passion inherent in the music very well, the newer version a little more forcefully than its predecessor.

The obvious difference between the old and new Naxos recordings concerns the tempo for the slow movement. I’ve already indicated that Levinas and the Ludwig Quartet get just the right balance here - affective but never over-sentimental and providing just the right contrast with the finale - so it follows that their timing of 11:40 also seems to me about right and the Ortiz/Fine Arts 10:20 too fast, on paper at least.

In fact, there is a wide range of tempi in recordings of this movement. Surely Sviatoslav Richter and the Bolshoi Quartet, who take a whole 12:47, overdo the marking con molto sentimento. At the other extreme, the new Naxos is not by any means the fastest account of the slow movement: the Amati Quartet and Werner Bartschi, on Divox, polish it off in 10:04 and the Petersen Quartet with Artur Pizarro, on a Phoenix recording which has been well received in some quarters, are only marginally slower than Ortiz and the Fine Arts at 10:40. With Kalle Randalu and the Mandelring Quartet on Antes Edition taking 10:24 and The Schubert Ensemble (Champs Hill Records, formerly ASV) 10:30, the Ortiz/Fine Arts tempo begins to look more like the norm, especially when Michael Cookson praised the ‘flowing and expressive account of the central movement’ of the Schubert Ensemble recording - see review.

In reality, I wasn’t surprised to discover that I found little to choose between the two Naxos accounts of this movement. That apparently large paper difference becomes insignificant in the event, with both groups capturing the mood very effectively, once again demonstrating that timing alone is often unimportant in the overall context. I’m sure that if I had played them one after the other, Building a Library style, the differences would have seemed more apparent, but I prefer to judge a performance as a whole; by that criterion, I could happily live with both versions.

In the Quartet the major difference arises not in the slow, third movement, where the Fine Arts and Dante Quartets are largely in agreement about the basic tempo - both give the music due weight - as in the outer movements: the Hyperion opening movement is rather weightier and the finale lighter than the Naxos account. The Pro Arte Quartet on a historic (1933) recording on Radiex Music and the Academica String Quartet on Dynamic both take even longer over the first movement and are only a little slower than the Dante Quartet in the finale. The timings of the Gewandhaus Quartet on Berlin Classics and the Quatuor Ysayë on Ysayë Records are also very close to those of the Dante Quartet. A highly regarded 1978 version by the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Australian Eloquence offers considerably slower timings than the Dantes in both outer movements. It’s another case of the Fine Arts being out on a limb, especially in the opening movement.

Once again, however, the differences which appear on paper become far less important when one listens to the actual performances. I do marginally prefer the Dante Quartet’s performances of the outer movements, especially in view of the greater weight which they give to the opening, but I could - and shall - be more than happy to live with the Fine Arts version. Though I could never describe the Dante’s finale as hurried, it would be equally difficult to describe the Fine Arts as dawdling here.

The new Naxos recording is very good throughout. The notes, by Keith Anderson, are brief but, as usual, informative; they may not be in quite the same league as the more detailed ones by Roger Nichols for Hyperion but they will do very well. In any case, Hyperion generously offer all comers access to the pdf version of their booklet.

In the end, I think you must allow the choice of coupling and price to decide your choice. Both recordings of the Franck String Quartet and Piano Quintet are very good and thoroughly recommendable. The new Naxos version of the Quintet is more logically coupled than the old; though the Franck Quartet is almost as much a Cinderella of the repertoire as the Chausson, it was for me the more impressive work.

On the other hand, the Dante seem to me to have a slight advantage over the new version of the String Quartet and their Fauré coupling is equally attractive. They are more expensive at full price but that differential is considerably reduced if, like me, you download from the Hyperion website - £7.99 for the mp3 or the lossless flac version. The latter is fully equivalent in quality to the CD and it comes with that pdf version of the booklet to print out.

You wouldn’t have any cause to feel short-changed by the new Naxos, but my preference would be to purchase the Hyperion and the older Naxos, thereby obtaining excellent performances of four fine works, with no duplication. If you followed my recommendation to obtain the Hyperion versions of the Fauré Piano Quartets and Piano Quintets, the Dante Quartet’s version of his String Quartet is almost a mandatory acquisition.

Brian Wilson 

 


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