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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor [39:06]
Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne [24:14]
Hulda, Ballet allégorique [17:17]
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/Christian Arming
rec. 4-8 June 2012, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
FUGA LIBERA FUG596 [80:37]

This disc couples the celebrated Franck, the great D minor symphony, with the obscure: two pieces which are almost never heard or even recorded. It’s a great success all around.
 
Let’s start with the earliest work.Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne is more interesting by virtue of being the first symphonic poem ever composed, than it is by virtue of being good. It’s early Franck, in a muted, Germanic Sturm und drang mood which doesn’t feel especially like any composer in particular. There are episodes of tension and suspense which build to little, at least two moments where hymnal scoring brings to mind the monastery scene in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet - written decades later - and a very brief climax around 18:00 that has a lot of power. The booklet brings up but dismisses another possible way Franck might have influenced a later composer: the pulsating violins in this work sound a lot like the beginnings to several Bruckner symphonies, in an apparent coincidence. The most important thing about the work is its date of composition, 1846, which would have made it the first symphonic poem - had Franck ever had it published or performed.
 
What follows is even rarer. The ballet music from Hulda has apparently not been recorded since a live 1960 broadcast of the full opera was set to LP. This neglect really makes no sense at all, especially in an age where nearly everything is being recorded. The first dance admittedly comes across as charmless and bland, but the second is more distinctive and more reflective of the mature Franck’s style; the dance of the elves is a little menacing (Lord of the Rings elves?) and the final rondo brings the disc to a rousing close.
 
The first half of the CD is an account of the very frequently played and recorded Symphony in D minor. But I’m surprised and gladdened to report that the Liège Philharmonic and Christian Arming are in smashing form here too, and theirs is a performance of great romantic passion, epic sweep, and even a splendorous orchestral sound. Compared to some accounts - my favorite is Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw - the first movement lacks a touch of energy and mania, but there’s Gallic warmth to compensate. The recorded sound, which lets you hover atop the podium surveying everything but feels warm rather than clinical, contributes to my impression of the Liège Philharmonic as being a truly exemplary ensemble. Only at the very ending of the symphony do things feel a little clogged, sonically.
 
All in all I’m very happy with this. If you love the symphony, here’s a very good account; if you love rarities, the ballet suite offers some pretty dances and the tone poem is at least historically interesting. And the whole program clocks in at a very generous 81 minutes.
 
Brian Reinhart