About this Recording
8.554484 - Piano Recital: Ashley Wass

César Franck (1822-1890)
Eglogue, Op.3; Premier Grand Caprice; Op.5; Les plaintes d'une poupée;
Prélude, Choral et Fugue; Danse lente; Prélude, Aria et Final

Belgian by birth, French by choice and of more remote possible German ancestry, César Franck was born in 1822 in the Walloon city of Liège. His musical gifts, obvious at an early age, were encouraged by his father who saw the possibility of a career for his son as a virtuoso performer. Study at the Conservatoire in Liège and early concert performance, with compo­sitions to match his father's ambitions, was followed by a period of respite from concert activity in Paris, with lesson, from Antonín Reicha in the techniques of composition, and rigorous piano discipline from Pierre­-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerrnann. In 1837 he was ad­mitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he began to win some distinction, continuing his piano lessons with Zimmermann and studying the organ rather less effectively under François Benoist. The natural Course for Franck would have been to enter for the important Prix de Rome, victory in which would have brought three years study in Rome. It was, however, in 1842, when such a triumph seemed to lie before him, that his father withdrew him from the Conservatoire, again seeking a career as a performer for his son, initially in Belgium, where it was hoped to interest influential patrons. Two years later the Francks were back in Paris once more.

Franck's failure to impress, either as a pianist or as a composer, brought in the following years the need to earn a living as a teacher. His marriage in 1848 to one of his pupils, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, the daughter of parents of importance in the Comédie Française and heirs to along family theatrical tradition, brought a breach with his father. From now on he continued to earn a living by teaching and as an organist, at first at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, where he had been married. In 1851 he moved to Saint-Jean-­Saint-François-au-Marais, with its fine new Cavaillé-Coll organ and in 1858 he was appointed organist at Sainte-Clotilde, where Cavaillé-Coll installed a new instrument, generally regarded as the finest example of its kind. It was at Sainte-Clotilde over the following years that Franck built a reputation as an organist. In 1872, after a period in which he had won the loyalty and affection of a group of pupils, led by Duparc, and during which his music had been performed under the auspices of the Société Nationale de Musique, a body devoted to the promotion of Ars Gallica, he was appointed to the position of professor of organ at the Conservatoire.

From the 1870s onwards Franck devoted himself to composition, influenced in particular by hearing, in 1874, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which made a profound impression on him. At the Conservatoire he aroused some jealousy in his colleagues by attracting to his classes a group of young composers, known as the bande à Franck (among them Vincent d'Indy), to whom their teacher was known as Pater Seraphicus.

It was largely through d'Indy that Franck, in 1886, succeeded Saint-Säens as president of the Société Nationale, after resignations from the committee over the admittance of foreign music. As a composer Franck enjoyed limited contemporary success and a concert of his works, given in 1887, was an under-rehearsed disaster during which even the Symphonic Variations barely held together. The decade before Franck's death in 1890, however, brought a series of works that have long been part of continuing concert repertoire, above all the Violin Sonata, the single Symphony and the Symphonic Variations.

In his earlier career as a virtuoso pianist, it was natural that Franck should provide music in the expected style of the time: operatic variations, fantasies and concertos. From the same early period comes the Églogue (Hirtengedicht), Opus 3 (Églogne – Pastoral Poem), published in 1843 and dedicated to his pupil Baroness Chabannes. The general tranquillity of the piece, with its repeated melodies, is broken by a passage of display marked Allegro fuocoso, but calm is later restored.

Franck's Premier Grand Caprice was written in 1843 and published as Opus 5. The work is dedicated to another pupil, Mlle E. Cordier-Moraquini. An imposing introduction is followed by a gentle melody framing a contrasting rapid passage. Its return leads to greater drama, but eventually serenity returns, with the material of the first part of the work. All does not end here, however, since a final episode calls for some technical virtuosity in its version of the principal theme, now emphatically stated.

Les plaintes d'une poupée (‘A Doll's Lament’), probably written in 1865, perhaps for one of his own children, is simplicity itself, both in melodic content and texture. An outer section in G major frames a minor key central section, a brief excursion into the melancholy of the title.

In 1884 Franck returned to composition for the piano, after a break of nearly twenty years. The Prélude, Choral et Fugue was dedicated to Marie Poitevin, who gave the first performance in 1885. The Prélude, Aria et Final, completed in 1887, was dedicated to the wife of Franck's pupil Charles Bordes, the pianist Léontine Marie Bordes-Pène, who gave the first performance, as she had with Eugène Ysaÿe of his Violin Sonata. These are major works and very characteristic in their musical language of the style Franck had developed. In particular he makes use of the cyclic procedures familiar elsewhere in his later work, with movements linked by recurrent themes and motifs. The demanding B minor Prélude of the earlier work leads to the Choral, which is only a chorale in name but is, nevertheless, largely chordal in texture and organ-like in its sonorities, making use, as the Prélude had done, of brief passages suggesting recitative. The movement is linked to the final Fugue by a brief passage in more rapid motion, before the descending fugal theme is heard, a subject later to be inverted. The movement reaches a dramatic climax in a cadenza, with its final apotheosis of the fugal subject.

Franck's next composition for the piano was the relatively insignificant Danse lente, written in 1885 and first performed the following year. This is a wistful little piece, at times suggesting a song by Fauré.

The Prélude, Aria et Final starts with an attractive and memorable theme, modulating as it re-appears, in the manner of the organ improvisations for which Franck had such a deserved reputation. There is a brief contrapuntal passage, duly developed, and a return of the principal theme, at first in a florid texture. The Aria offers a moment of respite, delicately introduced. The thematically related final movement is couched in idiomatic pianistic terms, forming an impressive conclusion as it returns to the original theme of the opening. The Final, in particular, serves as a reminder of Franck's early career as a virtuoso pianist.

Keith Anderson

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