César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) [37:14]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet In G Minor (1893) [25:09]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre (violin I); Károly Schranz (violin II); Geraldine Walther (viola); András Fejér (cello))
rec. 22-25 May 2015, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
HYPERION CDA68061 [62:25]

It’s interesting reading about the bizarre events surrounding the premiere of César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor at the Société Nationale de Musique in January 1880. Saint-Saëns was apparently sight-reading the score at the piano with the Marsick String Quartet in tow. His initial joy gradually turned to horror and disgust as the concert performance progressed. At the end, Franck went on stage to offer thanks to the performers and dedicate the work to the pianist. Instead Saint-Saëns stormed off in strong disapproval. However, there was more to this than meets the eye. At the time of the Quintet’s composition the composer had become infatuated with an attractive and talented composition student, Augusta Holmčs; a Holmčs orchestral collection is on Marco Polo 8.223449. This same woman Saint-Saëns had previously proposed to but had been turned down and, as a result, he rejected the dedication. Likewise, the composer’s wife Félicité Franck, knowing the source of inspiration, similarly took an aversion to the work. Even Liszt was shocked by its passionate intensity, which is saying something.

The Quintet seems to have taken a backseat with the wider concert-going public in favour of those by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak. It’s difficult to understand why. The composer Charles Tournemire considered the work the "King of piano quintets" and since then Parisian audiences have embraced it wholeheartedly. Ultra-expressive in tone, Nadia Boulanger remarked that for ppp and fff markings it tops the bill. Probably more than any other chamber work it pushes the emotional boundaries to the limits, transporting us to a world of melancholy and overflowing passion.

The Takács Quartet and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin rise to the challenge of Franck’s impassioned score with true authority and determination. The opening movement is sensuous and smoulderingly intense. It certainly packs a punch. Ensemble is flawless and throughout there’s a logical sense of line and structure. In the quieter moments Hamelin comes into his own, with playing of captivating sensitivity and rarefied expressiveness. A more highly-charged reading I don’t think I’ve heard, with perhaps only Richter and the Borodins coming close (review). The slow movement, beautifully managed, has a limpid elegance, and is imbued with melancholy and wistfulness. The finale is rhythmically alert and vital. Once again Hamelin’s responsive contributions add to the success of the mix.

In contrast, the Debussy Quartet in G minor is one of the staples of the quartet repertoire, clocking up its fair share of recorded performances, The Takács deliver a strongly idiomatic reading, which both addresses the subtleties and nuances within the music and is sensitive to its richly impressionistic tonal landscape. I am completely won over by this performance, and it is the slow movement which clinches the deal. The Takács invest its bare textures with a hymn-like solemnity, and their superb control of dynamics and intuitive phrasing are breathtaking.

Sound quality and instrumental balance throughout is top-notch.

Last year the Takács Quartet celebrated their 40th anniversary, and it seems to me that they go from strength to strength with each new release. I previously reviewed their outstanding recordings of the Brahms String Quintets (review), and the Smetana and Janáček Quartets (review), the latter of which I nominated as a Recording of the Month. They have previously collaborated with Marc-André Hamelin in the piano quintets of Schumann (review) and Shostakovich (review).

Stephen Greenbank

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