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Eduard FRANCK (1817-1893)
Piano Concerto No 1 Op 13 in D minor (c.1846) [40:42]
Piano Concerto No 2 in C major (1879) [34:08]
Georg Michael Grau (piano), Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Fawzi Haimor
Rec. 2018, Studio der Württembergischen Philharmonie Reutlingen
CPO 555 320-2 [74:57]

Breslau born composer Eduard Franck came from a wealthy banking family. His pianistic gifts were evident at a young age and he was taken under the wing of Felix Mendelssohn, partly as a teacher but also as a friend and they would go on to give concerts together. Franck's first Piano Concerto was premiered by the composer in 1849 in Leipzig's Gewandhaus and impressed Ignaz Moscheles who was in the audience. Franck played the work at least up till 1855 after which it does not appear to have been performed until this century; the score was discovered in the library of the Accademie di Santa Cecilia in Rome and played in 2012 by James Tocco who prepared the score for publication by Breitkopf and Härtel. It is a large scale work, full of grand gestures and a rich orchestration. After a low timpani roll the piano quickly seizes the limelight with quicksilver figuration interspersed with orchestral fanfares. The first theme is a declamatory rising figure whilst the second is simple little melody in B-flat major. The movement is based around these two themes and though there is some novelty – the first theme played as a lyrical melody in the unrelated key of F-sharp major – I have to wonder if there is enough harmonic and melodic variety to sustain such a long movement; the three movements come in at 15:34, 11:46 and 13:22. The slow movement is undoubtedly beautiful with a long orchestral introduction featuring the horn section and the movement unfolds with the orchestra carrying the melody against a variety of different keyboard textures, delicate runs and dramatic chordal passages. The rondo finale's main theme is rugged and dance-like and it contrasts sharply with the lyrical second theme played by the piano alone; the virtuoso passagework that follows this is quirkily off-rhythm but it is perfectly in keeping with the bluff manner of the dance theme. Another novel feature is the cadenza which revisits the music of the second movement, now wreathed in arpeggios in the manner of a Thalberg operatic fantasy and the movement ends in a noble rather than energetic style.

The second Concerto is still in manuscript though Breitkopf and Härtel are planning its publication. It is only six minutes shorter than the first but seems less sprawling. The first movement opens in majestic fashion with a slowly unfolding dialogue between piano and orchestra; the dotted note motif that Franck writes occupies much of the movement and the harmonic structure gradually becomes more extensive. The lyrical second theme develops out of the tail end of the opening motifs and after a short viola solo the piano takes it and accompanies it with flowing triplets. The first theme reappears almost seamlessly out of these triplets and the movement continues freely in this way interspersing the drama of the rhythmic motif with the lyricism of the second theme. The intermezzo; adagio and presto finale are the highlights of the CD; the former opens with hushed strings before the piano enters with the main theme low in the piano. The piano goes on to accompany the flutes, horns and strings with fragile arpeggios and trills before a grander statement of the theme and a tranquil close in the the major key. The finale is an energetic dance in 6/8 with lots of virtuoso writing for the soloist and, even more evidently, a rich and interesting orchestration; indeed it is Franck's orchestration in general that impresses most; hints of Mendelssohn not surprisingly, but there is plenty of Brahms in the mix as well. This is especially apparent in the second Concerto and there are some fine moments throughout; the hushed string opening to the second movement of the C major Concerto is heart-wrenching in its beauty.

It is good to have both these works available but it is the second Concerto that stands out for me; the first has its charms and I have heard others praise it highly, but I feel it could afford to be trimmed to more modest proportions without diminishing it. Soloist and orchestra give convincing performances, other than an odd note in the orchestra at 3:58 in the first Concerto's second movement, and the challenges of the piano part are handled easily by Georg Michael Grau. If I had a little gripe it is that in the first Concerto's second movement Grau's version of andantino con moto is somewhat slower than the orchestra's which is a shame given the fine pacing adopted by conductor Fawzi Haimor. Other than this, I would recommend this disc for bringing us a little more of a glimpse into the genre in the second half of the 19th Century.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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