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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prelude, Choral & Fugue in B minor, M. 21 (1884) [18.03]
Prelude, Aria & Final in E major, M. 23 (1886-87) [22.56]
Piano Quintet in F minor, M. 7 (1878-79) [34.33]
Prelude, Andantino from Prelude, Fugue & Variation in B minor, M. 30 (1859-62) (arr. piano by Bauer/Dalberto) [3.34]
Michel Dalberto (piano)
Novus Quartet
rec. 2018, Salle Philharmonique de Liège, Belgium
APARTÉ MUSIC AP203 [79.09]

On the Aparté label the centre piece of this new César Franck album is his glorious Piano Quintet. There are also two major works for solo piano and the short Prelude for solo piano transcribed from one of his organ pieces.

As well as being a composer, Franck was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire and a renowned organist, serving as titular organist on the Great Cavaillé-Coll instrument at Saint Clotilde Basilica in Paris, from 1859 until his death. Late to develop his mature style, Liège born Franck wrote his masterpieces Symphonic Variations (1885) and Symphony in D minor (1888) when in his mid-sixties, the primary exception being his much loved setting of Panis Angelicus (1861). No less significant is Franck’s chamber music that comprises several impassioned works. Some of these are the most famous in all late 19th Century chamber music – notable is the mighty Piano Quintet (1879), the String Quartet (1889) and most popular of all the Violin Sonata (1886).

Despite its exceptional quality I don’t believe the Piano Quintet is performed as often as it deserves. Composed during the period 1878-79, it has been said that a major inspiration for Franck when writing the score was his love for his pupil Augusta Holmès. Its première was given in 1880 at Société Nationale de Musique, Paris, by the Marsick Quartet with Camille Saint-Saëns playing the piano part. Designed in three movements without a scherzo, musicologist James M. Keller wrote of the score’s “torrid emotional power.” Typical of Franck he constructs the F minor score around cyclical material, which reappears modified or transformed throughout the movements. Notable for its extremely wide dynamic range the score is matched by the weighty range of emotions it communicates, with pianist Michel Dalberto and the Novus Quartet balancing the demands convincingly. With significant commitment, steadfast unity and generous intensity of expression from the piano and strings this is quite superb chamber music playing and one of the finest performances I know. Of the established recordings, and the one I encounter most often, I should mention, on Decca, the ‘classic’ account from pianist Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet, led by Willi Boskovsky and produced in 1960 at Sofiensaal, in Vienna. Another recording of note is on Naxos, from pianist Cristina Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet from 2008 at La Chaux-de-Fonds, in Switzerland.

From 1884 the Prelude, Choral et Fugue for solo piano – a tribute to J.S. Bach – is distinctive for its use of cyclic structuring and has a noticeably sacred character. Written two years later, the Prelude, Aria et Final shares commonality with the earlier solo piano work for its use of cyclic form yet it seems to inhabit a more secular quality. Last of all on the album is the Prelude, an Andantino arranged here for piano by Dalberto himself in association with Harold Bauer. This piece is from the organ work Prelude, Fugue et Variation, the third of Franck’s Six Pièces that are dedicated to Saint-Saëns. It’s good to get reacquainted with these two excellent solo-piano works and discover the short Prelude: Andantino too. Throughout the disc, the Parisian pianist gives a high voltage performance of considerable flair and, when required, percussive sparkle.

Recorded in 2018 at Salle Philharmonique in Liège, the sound engineers have done an impressive job providing clarity and balance. Dalberto has written the booklet essay César Franck and the Piano: Poetic Complexity, which is interesting to read and provides sufficient information about the works. This is with Michel Dalberto and the Novus Quartet in sterling form, featuring a compelling account of the Piano Quintet.

Michael Cookson



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