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Franck Orchestral GMCD7830
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César Franck (1822-1890)
Les Éolides Op. 26 FWV 43 (1875-6)
Les Djinns Op. 45 FWV 45 (1884)
Rédemption interlude FWV 52 (1873)
Variations symphoniques FWV 46 (1886)
Le Chasseur maudit FWV 44 (1882)
Fabio Banegas (piano)
Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine/Francisco Varela
rec. 2021, Lviv National Philharmonic Hall, Lviv, Ukraine
GUILD GMCD7830 [72]

Franck’s shorter orchestral works are both rewarding and beautiful and do not deserve their comparative neglect. True, the two best-known, the tone poems Les Éolides and Le Chasseur maudit, turn up from time to time as fillers, but Les Djinns and the Rédemption interlude are much rarer. As for collections of all four, there were two in the days of vinyl LPs, by Jean Fournet and André Cluytens, which were subsequently transferred to CD, but the original recordings date from the 1960s and there has since been no similar collection that I am aware of. So this issue would be very welcome even if it were less good than it is, particularly since the longer playing time of CDs means that the Variations symphoniques can be added to the four other works.

We begin with Les Éolides. The title in English is The Aeolids, daughters of Aeolus, keeper of the winds in Greek mythology. He kept the winds in a bag and let them out as needed. The music itself represents gusts and breezes, both lighter and more forceful, but in general it is a gentle piece, which quite gives the lie to the idea that Franck’s orchestral music is always forceful and Wagnerian. I particularly noted the delicate playing and the prominent and distinctive timbres of the woodwind, quite in the traditional French manner. There is also a lovely long tune, of the kind one cannot have too much of.

Les Djinns is a real rarity. It is both a tone poem and a one movement piano concertante piece, of a kind which used to be popular – think of Weber’s Konzertstück or a number of early Chopin works – but which have dropped out of today’s less miscellaneous concert programmes. In Arabian folklore djinns are spiritual beings which can be good or evil, corresponding to the daemons or middle spirits of European folklore. Here the direct inspiration was a poem by Victor Hugo. The piece is a real one movement concerto with some bravura writing for the solo piano and powerful writing and an insistent rhythm which begins and ends the work.

Rédemption in its original form was an oratorio in two parts with this orchestral interlude in the middle. The original work is rarely heard, though there are recordings by Jean Fournet and Michel Plasson. The interlude, on the other hand, has taken on a separate life. After some preliminaries, we settle down to a gentle theme on the strings which has the quality of allowing repetition and development. There is a contrasting processional on the brass and the whole piece is very satisfying.

The Variations symphoniques are the best-known work here. They were written for the pianist Louis Diémer, who had been the soloist in the premiere of Les Djinns and who had asked for another piano concertante work. As is well known, the variations are not clearly distinguished from one another, and the fact that there are two main themes rather than one is another source of confusion. Still, the work is a beautiful one, justly popular; the lovely passage where the cellos have the theme over rippling arpeggios in the piano comes across particularly well, as does the skipping passage which immediately follows it.

Le Chasseur maudit depicts a huntsman who defies the church to go hunting on a Sunday and is punished by being himself eternally pursued by demons (definitely evil here, hence the different spelling). The story comes from a ballad by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger, who specialized in such things. We hear the huntsman’s horn calls and the church bells and then the hunt gets on the way. Franck here sounds quite like the Berlioz of the Symphonie Fantastique. There is a curse, delivered by the trombones, which leads to a furious close.

All these are presented idiomatically and confidently by the Lviv National Philharmonic orchestra under their Argentinian conductor Francisco Varela, who clearly spotted a gap in the repertoire and has filled it very well. The piano soloist in Les Djinns and the Variations is Fabio Banega, another Argentinian, who has performed and recorded all Franck’s works involving the piano. He also acquits himself well. The recording is fine, the booklet helpful, and it only remains to note that this disc was recorded shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that Guild records will be donating some of the profits to the DEC appeal for that country. I am delighted that this is so, but the recording stands on its own and needs no special pleading.

Stephen Barber

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