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8.225044 - FRANCK: Piano Transcriptions / Violin Sonata / Pastorale
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César Franck (1822-1890)

Piano Transcriptions

César Franck was born in Liège in 1822, and died in Paris in 1890. Like so many others before him, he was a child prodigy. At the age of thirteen he was giving public performances of his own compositions, and at fifteen enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire. No great success there, he was nonetheless encouraged by Chopin, Donizetti, and Liszt in his ambition as a composer. He married in 1848 and soon settled into a comfortable life as teacher, composer, and church organist. It is in this latter capacity that Franck launched his principal reputation as an improviser, a colourist, and the leader in a growing school of French organ performance. In time his students would include Pierné, d’Indy, Duparc, Chausson, Lekeu, Castillon, and Paul Dukas. Together with Saint-Saëns and Fauré, Franck would set the pattern for generations of French composers, performers, and organ specialists.

As a composer, Franck worked in many fields. The symphonic poem, chamber music, opera, sacred music, and the piano works which are the subject of this recording, all fell to his industry, to his adaptation of Wagnerian chromaticism and Lisztian cycles, to his sheer technical mastery, and to his lyrical impulse. Even so, much of this output is rarely performed today. The operas are a bad blend of absurd plot and orphaned music, and much of his text-setting in religious music is unrelievedly tedious. It is in the works in which a predilection for three-part structures coexists with a gift for melody that his voice has survived.

The Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, M. 21, is a powerful example of Franck working from strength. Although performed as one movement, its deep structure is the three-part form in which his imagination seemed so comfortably to repose. Each of its elements is linked generatively to the next, and the Lisztian motif with which Franck entices us at the outset, presented chromatically, will later be revealed as the subject of the fugue itself. So does Franck, at his best, transform the structure and sensibility of the tone-poem into the tighter structures of solo keyboard music. The Prelude naturally prefigures the entire work, and close attention will reveal the germ of every subsequent idea. In the first two subjects, each presented discretely, one may hear the richest lode. These two themes alternate, with each passing subject both refined and expanded. The Chorale follows without interruption. In one of his most inspired transformations, Franck presents a ‘prelude’ theme in harp-like arpeggiations. Here the basic alternation of materials consists of that between the slow progress of the chorale in blocks, and the horizon-filling broken chords which balance it. Also connected to the work’s preceding materials, the Fugue is approached by a simple descending chromatic device, itself drawn from a prelude figure. The first counterpoint suggests the world of Bach and the realm of orderly procedure, but Franck writes in his own name, and his fugal procedures owe more to rhapsodic improvisation than to learned templates. Again, his method is alternation. Each of the principal themes exchanges information with the other, completing the message of its partner. In a long and closely-considered finale, the composer returns to the opening subject, now modified harmonically and hugely expanded sonically. It is a remarkable adaptation of fugal procedure, intensified by torrents of scales, thunderous left-hand octaves, rising triads, and quick leaps across the keyboard of the only — and most virtuosic — instrument for which it could have been written.

The Prelude, Fugue, and Variation, Op. 18, is one of six in a set written in 1860-1862, first for organ and later for two pianos, and then for piano and harmonium. Opus 18 was reconceived for solo piano by the great pianist Harold Bauer (1873-1951). Although four ‘movements’ are specified, it is in fact yet again in the three so favoured by Franck. It opens with a Prelude of melancholy sweetness, full of simple repetition and easy display, unadorned harmonic change from major to minor, and usually in answered pairs. Franck thought enough of the Lento which follows to highlight it as a separate event. Its brevity is enforced by the power of its block chords. The Fugue follows with a calm subject clearly related to the opening materials. As in the fugue of M. 21 earlier considered, Franck’s scheme is a deception. Again he begins by honouring Bach and the other masters of fugal construction, but within a very few measures turns to create a sense of chase and exchange quite his own. It is full of statement and reply to be sure, but follows an independent harmonic design of real complexity. Not for Franck the plain formula of imitation at the fifth. The concluding Variation is the mirror of the Prelude, save in its final destination: through a variant melody given in the left hand, and quoting the ornamentation of the Prelude, he brings us wide circle back to the opening. We revisit this binary world of major/minor key exchange, exploring each but certain of neither. Only in the final measures do we find that we have come home to the major key for which we have been long searching.

Also transcribed by Harold Bauer from the set of six works cited above, the Opus 19 Pastorale is a minor masterpiece of affection and impression. One feels the green warm country, hears the near bells and their distant echo, and appreciates again the dualism of Franck’s compositional methods. He balances a lyric line with powerful chords, replies to a song with an oration. Half-way through we move into a faster place. Here the piano is much more argumentative. Rhythm has replaced contemplation, and much more active writing is under way, often highlighted by parallel thirds and sixths. Through devices of circumlocution we come back to the first broad spaces of the opening. On this return, however, we have landed much closer to the bells. The work closes with all of them pealing at once, consonant and true, and then as coda the perfect quietness of two only, dualism commingled at the end.

The Sonata in A for Violin and Piano, M. 8, is very likely Franck’s most admired chamber work. It dates from 1886, the same year he undertook the Symphony in D minor. Here transcribed for solo piano by the French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), this version is a model of tasteful rejoicing and thoughtful invention. The first movement, Allegretto ben moderato, takes a leisurely 26 bars to reveal its first theme, and thus is a gentle pace established for the entire work. So too does Cortot establish his means: how often, imitating the open strings of the violin, does he voice and pedal the solo piano part to allow comparably open sonorities. The Allegro which follows is a feat of rising tension and undissipatible energy. Buried within is thematic material from the first movement, showing the way to the cross-sonata links that give the work its discipline. The Recitativo-Fantasia of the third movement is a charming throwback to Liszt, stentorian and heroic. The concluding Allegretto poco mosso offers the most direct reprise of the first movement, adding to it imitation in canon and thus Franck’s most favoured and familiar pairing.

Charles Barber

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