César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1878-79) [36:10]
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [29:07] *
The Schubert Ensemble (*William Howard (piano); *Simon Blendis (violin);Jan Peter Schmolk (violin); Douglas Paterson (viola); Jane Salmon (cello))
rec. Champs Hill, Potton Hall, Sussex, England, 3-5 October, *7-8 November 2003. DDD
CHAMPS HILL CHRCD 004 [65.19]
These recordings first appeared in 2005 on the now defunct ASV label (Gold GLD 4019) - it is from that disc, in their absence on this one, that recording dates are taken. At the time of the original ASV release, Champs Hill had not yet morphed into a label in its own right.
Composer Charles Tournemire once famously described César Franck's most German of Belgian works as "king of the piano quintets". Although a significant number of competitors have been added to the repertoire since, it remains a fact that Tournemire's ability to recognise Franck's particular kind of genius was significantly greater than Debussy's. Critics and audiences have said just as good things of the Violin Sonata in A that the passage of time is unlikely ever to gainsay - all of which makes for a superb CD coupling for newcomers to Franck or to late-Romantic chamber music in general.
There are countless recordings of both works, especially the Sonata, already available, but for the inured too there is much here to commend itself in the Schubert Ensemble's recital. True, these are performances that are loyal to Franck's scores in an unflashy way that some may consider 'academic'. But Franck himself may well have been among those preferring the Schuberts' interpretations above others deemed more 'poetic', but which say more perhaps about the performers than the composer.
In the Quintet, there is recent competition from the Fine Arts Quartet with Cristina Ortiz on Naxos (8.572009) and the Petersen Quartet with Artur Pizarro on Phoenix (PE142), for example. The Schuberts immerse themselves in the dark, lush passion of the work - bizarrely described in one contemporary review of the ASV disc as "sinister" - with a rhythmic perception and verve that nicely round out their general faithfulness to Franck's score.
As for the Sonata, on top of countless older recordings of reasonable vintage or better, there have been a fair few new ones that have met with critical acclaim: Ray Chen with Noreen Polera on Sony (88697723202), Jennifer Pike with Martin Roscoe on Chandos (CHAN10667), cellist Anne Gastinel with Claire Désert on Naive (5259), Joshua Bell with Jeremy Denk also on Sony (88697891822), Vadim Repin with Nikolai Lugansky on DG (4778794), Catherine Manoukian with Xiayin Wang on Marquis (81385) - and those are just the ones that have appeared since this Champs Hill disc was released!
For all-round, no-nonsense quality there is no good reason not to favour Howard and Blendis, particularly over any where the coupling is not Franck's Quintet. In both works the Schubert Ensemble are a match in finesse and accuracy for any of the above. Moreover, audio grade here, whilst not quite ideal - there is too much reverberation in the Sonata, for example - is nonetheless pretty good. This is more than can be said for many established "classic" recordings of these works, such as, for the Quintet, Victor Aller with the Hollywood Quartet on Testament (SBT 1077) or Clifford Curzon's 1960 live recording with the Amadeus Quartet (available on BBC Legends, BBCL 40612 and elsewhere).
Booklet notes by Ates Orga are couched in slightly ungainly prose, and for a while slip into technical waffle, but offer plenty of background detail to the works. There are a few typos - "Augène Ysäye" and "cynically" instead of "cyclically", for example! - that still (May 2012) remain uncorrected on the Champs Hill website. The cover booklet shows a section of the Eiffel Tower, which is considerably more French than Franck - denied admission to the Paris Conservatoire because he was not French enough! - or, as these works demonstrate, his music.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
For all-round, no-nonsense quality there is no good reason not to favour this disc.