About this Recording
8.572901 - FRANCK, C.: Early Piano Music - Ballade / 4 Mélodies de F. Schubert / Fantaisie sur 2 airs polonais / Souvenir d'Aix-la-Chapelle (Severus)
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César Franck (1822–1890)
Early Piano Music

 

Cesar Franck was born on 12 December 1822 in Liege, Belgium, the son of a German mother and a Belgian father. His musical talent was fostered from an early age. Managed by an ambitious father, he undertook his first concert tour at the age of twelve. In the same year, in spite of his outstanding talent, he was refused entry to the Paris Conservatoire, as he lacked French citizenship. He took private lessons in composition with Anton Reicha, the teacher of Liszt and Berlioz, and in piano with Pierre Zimmermann, the teacher of Bizet and Gounod. Two years later, now a French citizen, he continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, including organ and improvisation courses, and worked also as accompanist in the vocal class of the tenor Marco Bordogni, which inspired him to write his first opera, Stradella, at the age of fifteen.

After graduating with honours from the Paris Conservatoire, Franck earned his living as a soloist, chamber musician, composer, teacher and accompanist. He was supported by Franz Liszt, who made him his successor as “demonstrator” at the Pape piano factory, enabling him to become acquainted with the latest achievements in piano manufacturing. Later Liszt helped him by writing letters of recommendation: “If there were annual exhibitions in music as there are in the fine arts, Franck would honourably stand out: among the young who sweat blood and water to put down some ideas on a nasty piece of paper there are not three in France fit to hold a candle to him.”

Franck married EF Desmousseaux from a well-known theatrical family and in 1847 was appointed organist at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. From 1857 he was organist at Sainte-Clotilde, and was appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872. Apart from his famous organ works he wrote his most celebrated compositions in the last decade of his life, from his Piano Quintet (1879) to his Symphony in D minor (1888). He died on 8 November 1890 from pleurisy and pericarditis.

Although not gaining universal recognition as a composer during his lifetime, Franck was loved and revered by his fellow composers and his students, among them Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson. Working tirelessly, using only the morning hours from 5.30 to 7.30 for composing, he dedicated himself to his responsibilities as teacher and organist. A brilliant pianist and improviser to the end, he was exceptionally modest, unfailingly amicable, unorthodox in his teaching methods, and open to new developments. His students and colleagues called him “Pere Franck”, father Franck.

“Franck loved his art passionately and exclusively, and he loved his students as well […], forever tying their hearts to his”, d’Indy wrote in his memoirs. “To love, leaving behind egoism and oneself, by falling in love with something superior, maybe totally unknown, but in the existence of which one continues to believe…this was Cesar Franck’s way of being.”

Cesar Franck wrote his piano works in two separate periods, an early one lasting until 1848, and a late one from 1873 to 1887. The works presented on this recording were written within two years only, 1843–1844. During this time Franck made an extended concert tour and composed them not least to demonstrate his skills as both pianist and composer. As a sixteen-year-old he inspired Berlioz to praise the “glamour, vigour and precision” of his playing, while other critics complimented him on “the scope of his playing, his energy, delicacy, feeling, unrivalled velocity, nothing lacks”.

Although his early works do not possess the harmonic complexity of his later compositions, many characteristics of his style are already evident: the use of all registers and their colours, organ imitation, a dynamic range from ppp to fff, ffpp contrasts, as well as lengthy augmentations, polyphonic structures, simultaneity of different levels of sound, the frequent use of syncopation in the melody, certain recurring motifs, wide chords (Franck was capable of compassing the interval of an octave and a fifth, that is twelve white keys).

The Ballade, Op 9, dedicated to his student Athanasie Ardour, was written after Chopin’s Ballades but before those of Liszt. Franck performed it on 12 September 1843 in Aachen as well as in two other concerts the same year in Liege. Symmetrically constructed, it consists of a pastoral introduction of “Franckian length” in B major in typical 6/8 ballad metre, leading into an intensely dramatic, explosive three-part Allegro in B minor with a rhythmically distinctive first and syncopated second theme. The final part in B major is a kind of apotheosis, followed by a concluding stretta. Franck uses the themes also to build the form, inserting the pastoral theme of the introduction into the development of the middle section, and proves himself a master of thematic metamorphosis by using the same motif with contrasting expression, ranging from the lyrical and idyllic to the hymnal and heroic.

The Transcriptions of Four Schubert Songs, Op 8, are dedicated to four German students: Mathilde Kuetgens (The Young Nun), Maria Kuetgens (The Trout), Mlle Schwendler (The Maiden’s Lament) and Bertha Ritz (The Death Bell). Franck’s transcriptions were published in 1844, the last three being transcribed the same year by Liszt in his Six Transcriptions. Only Liszt’s transcription of The Young Nun had already been published, in 1837/8, and it is well-known that Franck performed Liszt’s Schubert transcriptions during his years at the Paris Conservatoire. Franck’s students Maurice Emmanuel and Guy Ropartz reported that “Franck deeply revered Schubert” and that his Lieder were to him “a source of never ending joy”. The critic Henri Blanchard testified that Franck “brilliantly performs and transcribes Schubert’s songs”. In comparison to Liszt’s transcriptions Franck’s remain closer to the original. They do not use less refined means, however, to transform them into a language of pianistic virtuosity: they somehow dematerialise the melody by dispersing it into different registers and varying it subtly, creating thus a particular expressive intensity.

The Fantasy on Two Polish Folk Songs, Op 15, is dedicated to the Princesse de Ligne, nee Lubomirska, a tribute to her native country. Franck performed it in 1845 in private concerts and on 16 February 1849 in a recital in Orleans. The first song, The moon has just risen, is a folk song taken from the poem Laura and Philo by Franciszek Karpiński. The second one, Sorrow stands now in every home, originates from Karol Kurpiński’s elegy on the death of the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kościuszko. Before Franck Chopin had used the songs in his Grande fantaisie sur des airs nationaux polonais, Op 13 (1829). The Fantasy is in three movements, in A major, D minor and A major respectively. The first movement, a theme with two variations, presents the first song in A major in a pastoral 6/8 metre (dolce e semplice, pp). The second movement introduces the second song, beginning as a heroic hymn in octaves with a bass ostinato, fortissimo, and fading away in the second variation as a pianissimo lyrical echo. The third movement transforms the theme of the second movement into a krakowiak and with its characteristic syncopations unleashes sweeping energy. After a short middle part in a pastoral 6/8 metre which recalls the opening, the krakowiak returns, leading into a luminous hymn which brings back the transformed first theme.

Franck dedicated the Souvenirs d’Aix-la-Chapelle, Op 7, to his student Cecile Lachambre. They recall his mother’s birth place, Aachen, which he visited on his first concert tour. In some ways the piece suggests his later Prélude, Choral et Fugue and Prélude, Aria et Finale, with a spiritual element finding its way into his piano music. Unlike the Ballade, it does not open up into a landscape but rather into the spiritual space of a cathedral. Polyphonic structures, organ sounds and contrasts of light and darkness are essential elements of the work. Two chorale themes in A flat minor and A flat major dominate the work, are constantly interwoven and undergo metamorphoses: the first theme, beginning as a four-part chorale in A flat minor and pp, closes the composition in double chords and organ pedal octaves, marked fff and in A flat major. This is one of Franck’s most personal works. “His unfailing benevolence was inspired by his faith”, wrote his pupil d’Indy, “as he was deeply religious…His belief in art mingled with his belief in God […] The seraphic figure of ‘Father Franck’, who lived only for Art, soars higher and higher into the light towards which, without failing or compromise, he strove throughout all his life.”


Julia Severus


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