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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1888) [39:29]
Symphonic variations (1885) [16:05]
Ilse von Alpenheim (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Antal Dorati
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 5 February 1976 (Symphony) and 6 February 1976 (Symphonic variations)

While Franck’s symphony is rarely encountered these days in the concert hall, we are fortunate that several very good or even outstanding accounts have been recorded over the years – especially during the 1950s and 1960s. These are still, in many cases, widely available. Any newly released version needs to be rather special, therefore, if it is to justify the attention of collectors.

The recordings under consideration here are making their first appearance on CD and form part of the Antal Doráti Centenary Society’s ambitious Doráti Edition. Originally taped over a couple of days in 1976 and released the following year on the Vox Turnabout label, they are thus representative both of the period when Doráti was the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor (1975-1979) and of the final phase of his career.

The performance of the Symphony – and especially of its opening movement - is distinctive. The slow opening (00:00-5:47) can sometimes come across as little more than a prelude that’s hurried through to get us to the subsequent vigorous allegro non troppo. Doráti, however, clearly conceives that lento section as of greater significance. Taking it with massive, inexorable deliberation and painting it in especially dark and mysterious colours, he screws up the musical tension to impressive effect. Once embarked upon that succeeding allegro non troppo, he again eschews superficial excitement in favour of dramatic deliberation. He frequently holds the orchestra back where others give the players their head as they approach Franck’s faster passages. The overall effect of Doráti’s introspective approach is clearly demonstrated by the way in which it substantially extends the first movement’s overall length: of all the dozen other accounts that I took from my shelves for comparison, only Bernstein, conducting in his notoriously sluggish late phase, takes longer.

Mengelberg, Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1940 16:25 8:57 9:26
Toscanini, NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1940/1946 18:26 9:16 9:59
Rodzinsky, Vienna State Opera Orchestra, 1954 18:17 10:41 10:48
Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 1959 16:00 8:48 9:10
Beecham, Orchestre National de l’ORTF, 1959 17:20 10:50 10:19
Monteux, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1961 18:02 10:37 10:21
Maazel, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1961? 17:56 9:44 9:15
Barbirolli, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962 18:20 9:33 9:46
Van Otterloo, Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1964? 17:19 10:14 9:23
Stokowski, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 1970 16:40 11:14 11:30
Doráti, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1976 18:50 9:56 10:43
Bernstein, Orchestre National de France, 1981 19:20 11:22 11:37
Svetlanov, USSR State Symphony Orchestra, 1983 16:39 11:19 9:50

In contrast to his approach to the opening movement, Doráti gives a brisk and rather forthrightly-delivered account of the symphony’s central allegretto right from its opening. The finale sees him once more inclining towards a degree of deliberation. While conductors such as Beecham emphasise the movement’s more ecstatic moments, here the excitement is always kept under firm control. A good example occurs at 6:57-7:28 where others often encourage the brass to ring out in an emotional catharsis. Doráti, at that point, chooses to keep the lid on. Some other accounts press on relentlessly through the passage at 8:26-9:24 where, towards the movement’s end, Franck underpins the strings with a rippling harp. Doráti instead applies the brakes, bringing to mind the first movement’s darker and mysterious atmosphere. The closing pages are also kept firmly in hand.

Doráti’s very controlled conception of Franck’s symphony requires expert playing from the orchestra and it certainly gets that here. The RPO brass section is very impressive in the first movement, as are the woodwind players in the second, but it is difficult to spot any real deficiencies. The conductor balances the orchestra and controls its dynamics with great expertise, so that some of the detail that is occasionally obscured by Franck’s sometimes rather thick scoring sees the light of day.

The account of the Symphonic Variations is, while equally well played, somewhat less distinctive. Ilse von Alpenheim - Mrs Doráti - exhibits a lyrical approach that many will find attractive and appropriate in this score. I do wonder, though, whether the husband-and-wife combination may have deprived this account of a useful element of creative tension and engendered a somewhat too cosy approach.

Any “edition” of an artist’s work will, of necessity, have to include material of varying quality, but I’m pleased to say that the account of the Franck symphony here is both distinctive and impressive. While it may not displace those other recordings from Monteux, Beecham and the rest, it can certainly join them on my shelves in a place of some distinction.

Rob Maynard



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