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César Auguste FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 14 [37:48]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 30 [36:16]
César Auguste FRANCK (1822-1890)
String Quartet in D Major [46:44]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 35 [30:15]
Spiegel String Quartet
Jan Michiels (piano)
rec. 2005
MDG 644 2145-2 [74:17 + 77:09]

Originally released by MDG as separate compact discs (review ~ review), this ‘two for one’ set is a real bargain both in value for money and in performances.

The first disc presents the two works with piano. Franck’s mercurial Piano quartet, composed when he was 57, was one of his first compositions not destined for use in the church. It was the first of his three great chamber pieces composed between 1878 to 1889; the others are the String Quartet and Violin Sonata. The Quintet, a monumental piece of romantic chamber music, was a success from the first performance. Never mind that Camille Saint-Saëns, the original pianist, apparently distained the work. He left the stage leaving the open score on the piano; it was later found in the rubbish and rescued by the cleaners. The arching string melody and the dreamy piano writing make a wonderful slow opening to the first movement, one of my favourite openings to any Piano Quintet. The second section is a brusque Allegro. The melancholic feel of the opening section is further heightened in the Lento second movement. The first violin opens with a sad first theme before the lilting second theme enters. Despite the slow tentative opening of the final Allegro non troppo, the passion and tension gradually build, and the violin swirls high above. The movement develops until the string writing becomes more franetic and exciting, with a virtuosic piano part underneath, quite wonderful.

Chausson composed his Piano Quartet in 1897. Despite the works many merits, it has never reached the heights of popularity of the Concert in D major Op 21 written some five years earlier. Its opening movement Animé develops into three distinct themes. The first theme is in the piano, the second unusually sees the viola soar above the piano, and the final theme sees the lilting string melody over the piano’s right-hand. But it is how Chausson develops these themes, interweaving and combining them, that brings this music to new heights before the movement ends with the recapitulation of the first theme. The Très calme movement is, as suggested, calm and lilting. There are again three themes, developed and formed into a beautiful melody that is some of the composer’s finest (and my favourite track on the disc). This is followed by the scherzo marked Simple et sans hate. Rather than frenzied music, it brings the air of elegance and calm. Here the themes seem to develop out of each other, with some nice pizzicato sections that heighten the drama of the movement. The final movement has another Animé section, the liveliest of the four. It opens with a brief introduction before all the thematic material is introduced. Chausson then develops and weaves the themes before paying homage to his teacher Franck in the way that he cyclically brings them all together again in the movement’s and work’s conclusion.

Disc two presents the composers’ string quartets, something not that common in nineteenth-century French music. Franck undertook a thorough study of the quartets of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms before he embarked upon composing his own Quartet between 1889 and 1890. Beethoven was to be the greatest influence, if only in the way that Franck employs Beethovenian tonal development in the work. The opening movement combines traditional sonata form with ternary form. The violin introduces the first major theme, one of the most significant in the work; it will be employed again later in the work. The movement itself is in cyclic form, a favourite aspect of Franck’s compositional style, with the viola opening the redevelopment of the theme. The second and third movements are coloured with the spirit of Mendelssohn. The Scherzo, one of Franck’s finest pieces of chamber music, concludes with a subtle coda played pizzicato. The third movement Larghetto is in a favourite key of Franck’s, B Major. Its three main themes have a lightness akin to that of Mendelssohn, especially in the way that the expositions of the themes develop. The final movement, in extended sonata form, takes its lead from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the way that it develops thematic material from the previous movements, in reverse order, before deriving a new theme out of this material. This is then developed before the recapitulation that leads into the coda and then rushes towards the conclusion in the home key of D Major. This has always been my favourite of Franck’s chamber works. This performance only serves to reinforce my opinion of this wonderful Quartet.

Chausson’s String Quartet was composed at the very end of the composer’s life. He was to die after a bicycle accident before he had completed it, and Vincent d'Indy completed the third and final movement at the request of the Chausson’s family. The form of first two movements of the Quartet is conventional; the opening slow cello theme of the first movement provides the main material upon which the whole movement will be based. Chausson is here also influenced by Debussy’s impressionism. He goes as far as to quote from the opening movement of that composer’s G minor String Quartet Op. 10. In the languid second movement, Chausson turns to a different composer in how he quotes the Tarnhelm motif from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It could be a reference to ‘that frightful Wagner who is blocking all my paths’. In the third incomplete movement, most of the music was composed in full score; Chausson was said to have been working on the Quartet on the day of his accident. This is perhaps the most interesting of the three movements, especially in the use of dotted rhythms set against each other in the development, which leads to the more complex and rewarding music.

The performances by the Spiegel String Quartet and pianist Jan Michiels are excellent. This is a very welcome recording, up there with the best, and even replacing some of my previous favourites. The friendly acoustics help get the very best from this music, and so does the excellent recorded sound. The very informative booklet notes, derived from the original recordings, are most helpful, making this a most rewarding and welcome reissue.

Stuart Sillitoe

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