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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Ballade, Op. 9 (1844) [16:30]
Transcriptions of four Schubert songs, Op. 8 (world premiere recording) (1844) [17:34]
Fantasy on Two Polish Folk Songs, Op. 15 (1845) [11:46]
Souvenirs of Aix-la-Chapelle, Op. 7 (world premiere recording) (1845) [16:11]
Julia Severus (piano)
rec. 30-31 October 2012, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin, Germany
NAXOS 8.572901 [62:00]

Nineteenth century Belgian composer César Franck was an extraordinarily talented keyboard player. He enjoyed a short stint as a touring virtuoso before moving to Paris. At the Paris Conservatoire Franck studied piano under Pierre Zimmerman and composition with Aimé Leborn. After leaving the Conservatoire in 1842 he gained a formidable reputation as an improviser performing on organs built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. In 1858 he became an organist at Sainte-Clotilde - a position he retained for his entire life. Then in 1872 Franck accepted a professorship at the Conservatoire. 

Julia Severus began playing the piano at the age of four and graduated from the Berlin University of Arts and from Moscow Conservatory with a Ph.D. on J. S. Bach’s Articulation Practice. With the Aurora Quartet she has performed Rodion Shchedrin’s Hommage à Chopin, and their recordings for two pianos, eight hands, of Russian Romantic piano transcriptions (Naxos 8.557717) and of Norwegian contemporary composers have been highly acclaimed. Severus has also recorded Tchaikovsky’s ballet suites (Naxos 8.570418) with Alina Luschtschizkaja and Bizet’s piano solo works (Naxos 8.570831/2). In this recording Severus excels and shows immense skill as an interpreter and flair as a performer.
A fullness of sound is achieved in this recording, which captures the malleability of these piano pieces. Known for his gigantic hands - Franck was capable of spanning twelve white keys on the keyboard - Franck’s compositions demand impressive dexterity and astonishing range. This recording mediates between these qualities. 

Beginning with mild pastoral sounds, in a typical 6/8 ballade metre, Franck’s Ballade, Op. 9 springs to life in the syncopated second scene which demands dignity and fervent sincerity on behalf of the pianist; in this Severus does not disappoint. Bucolic calm is supplanted by storms and trickling brooks by oceanic tumult. Severus exudes the vigour and precision required to convey this emotive contrast. In this section Severus evokes and manages to control a frantic tension and frenzy which can also be heard in Jean-Gabriel Ferlan’s exquisite 1993 recording. Quickly rounding off this piece with a stretto, Franck employs a Lisztian-Wagnerian cyclical structure as he reconciles the initial oscillation between serenity and disquiet. Much like his Symphony in D minor, Franck’s Ballade is an ever shifting piece of modulating themes and changing harmonies. Severus plays with an intelligent simplicity, avoiding melodrama in favour of concentrated contemplation.
Remaining faithful to the original, Franck’s Transcriptions of Four Schubert Songs, Op. 8 are subtle yet intense pockets of feeling, recorded here for the first time. With great dynamic range and colour these pieces are elegant and earthy. Severus plays Die Forelle (The Trout) with enlightened freshness and in a mere two minutes manages to reawaken this tired melody. This performance of Des Mädchens Klage (The Maiden’s Lament) evokes Friedrich von Schiller’s striving sense of hope through the sentiments of loss and desolation felt by the Maiden in his poem. With the sorrowful maiden we sit ‘While she cries out her woe - to the gloom of the storm / Her eyes brimming over - her tears flowing on and on’ (‘Und sie seufzt hinaus in die finstre Nacht, / Das Auge vom Weinen getrübet’).
As a tribute to Poland,and dedicated to the Princess de Ligne, Franck’s Fantasy on Two Polish Folk Songs, Op. 15, ricochets between promise and despair. Again, Severus alludes to the poetic source of this piece and evokes Philo’s ‘light in the midst of night’ (‘O światło moje wpośród tej nocy!’) from Franciszek Karpiński’s sentimental poem entitled Laura and Philo.
Franck was a deeply religious and spiritual man. His Souvenirs of Aix-la-Chapelle, Op. 7 consists of polyphonic structures which swing between A flat minor and A flat major. These transform from a pianissimo four-part chorale to fortissimo double chords and organ pedal octaves. Not flummoxed by this complex interweaving and metamorphosis, Severus dexterously blends Franck’s admixture of tenderness and sublime awe.
Lucy Jeffery