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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, Choral et Fugue (1884) [19:13]
Violin sonata in A major (transcr. for piano by Alfred Cortot) (1886) [27:17]
Prélude, Aria et Final (1886-7) [22:53]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 2013/17, Deutschland Kammermusiksaal, Köln
CPO 555 242-2 [69:36]

César Franck’s violin sonata is deservedly one of the most popular works in the repertoire. From the dreamy opening through the fierce scherzo and the rhapsodic Recitative-Fantasia to the canonic finale it holds the attention. The themes are beautiful and varied, and each seems ideally suited to the instrument which first plays it, but it turns out to suit the other instrument equally well, such is the skill of the writing. The violin soars and exults, while the piano has a rich and challenging part.

It would therefore seem a particularly perverse idea to transcribe this work for piano solo, with no violin. But when the transcriber is the great Alfred Cortot, whose understanding of French music cannot be doubted, it is worth hearing what he has done. His transcription is the centrepiece of this recital. What he has done in many places is simply to add the violin line to the piano one, sometimes rearranging the harmonies slightly, or bringing the violin down an octave to bring it within the range of the pianist’s right hand. Occasionally some adjustment of the melodic line is required, particularly when the two instruments are playing a similar but not identical line. The greatest number of adjustments is needed in the finale. Cortot copes with this by noting that the piano melody is frequently doubled in octaves. By removing the upper octave, he can fit in the violin part. Of course, this does mean that there are an awful lot of notes to get round, but I notice that Michael Korstick must have very large hands – as indeed did Franck himself – as he can take big chords without spreading them. The main problem remains that of the whole idea: Franck worked with the contrast in timbre and expression between the two instruments, and when that is removed, repetitions may not seem sufficiently varied. Still, this transcription is more than a curiosity, though I would not advise listening to it when a violinist is around.

Before and after it we have Franck’s two main works genuinely for piano solo. The Prélude, Choral et Fugue is distantly inspired by Bach, with a toccata-like opening moving into a rich imitative passage. The Choral features a theme in crotchets in massive spread chords, not very like a chorale, which lead, through a transition passage which may have been suggested by the one in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, to a very free fugue, slightly more genuinely fugal than the one in Liszt’s sonata and featuring both an inversion of the subject and an elaboration of it in triplets. It builds up to a thunderous climax, and a cadenza, followed by a passage similar to the opening and in which the opening theme returns, Franck being an advocate of cyclic form. As Martin Cooper once wrote, ‘it is possible that, failing to write a satisfactory chorale and fugue, Franck may yet have written a great work of art.’

I have never been able to feel as much admiration for its companion piece, the Prélude, Aria et Final. Its structure is similar to that of its companion, but I find it too repetitive and the texture too consistently thick. It sounds like a transcription of an organ work, whereas the other piece is much more pianistically conceived. The finale, for all its bravura writing and the interest of its quiet ending, seems to me thin in content. Interestingly, Korstick writes in the booklet that he had not previously liked the piece, but had been converted by hearing a recording of it by Cortot.

Michael Korstick has the formidable technique and assurance which these works require. I have already mentioned that he must have large hands to span the chords Franck writes. He also occasionally allows a very slight delay between the hands. This was, of course, a fashion of the time, and Franck actually writes it in in places, such as at the opening of Prélude, Choral et Fugue. His pedalling is skilful and unobtrusive, so that Franck’s rich textures do not degenerate into mush. He is an excellent advocate for these works, and does his best for the Prélude, Aria et Final. The sound is excellent and accommodates the loudest climaxes with ease. There are notes in German and (slightly peculiar) English.

There must be dozens of recordings of the Franck sonata in its original form. Of this Cortot transcription I have found a few through searching on line. But they would be hard put to beat this one, and we have Franck’s two major piano scores as well. Those interested should not hesitate.

Stephen Barber

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