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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1886-8) [38:53] (1)
Variations symphoniques (1885) [16:45] (2)
Prélude, choral et fugue (1884) [19:55] (3)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1878-9) [40:18] (4)
Violin Sonata in A (1886) [29:54] (5)
Jean-Philippe Collard (piano) (2-5), Augustin Dumay (violin) (5), Quatuor Muir (4), Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson (1-2)
rec. 5 December 1983, 4 January 1984 (1-3), 17-18 December 1983 (4), 4-5, 9-10 July 1989 (5), Salle Wagram, Paris.
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 0946 3 81783 2 3 [75:50 + 70:19]


The debate on the value of EMI’s back catalogue is only at the beginning. Any prospective purchaser looking down the list and noting recordings of the Franck Symphony under Beecham, Bernstein, Cluytens, Giulini, Karajan and Klemperer – just to spout a few that come immediately to mind – is not going to see much added value here. Maybe in the 2040s, or the 2060s if current copyright proposals have their way, collectors will be posting the Plasson for downloading, or whatever they will be doing in the post-digital age, not as a great performance but as an example of “ordinary administration” in the days when French orchestras sounded like French orchestras.

For make no mistake, in the famous swimming-bath acoustics of the Salle Wagram the Toulouse brass bray as on the old Paris Conservatoire Orchestra LPs and the woodwind have a fruity vibrato. The strings sound not so very numerous and their attack is not always immaculate, but they are warm and committed. The brew isn’t as potent as it was back in the 1950s but it’s a French brew all right. There is a feeling that conductor and orchestra are all completely at home in “their” music.

However, maybe they know it a bit too well and are tempted to linger in the byways. The slow movement is well done but elsewhere the tempo drops back all too often. The finale in particular loses all sense of shape. Charles Munch showed that it is possible to get away with a wide range of speeds in this symphony if you keep the adrenalin running. I learnt to love the work in Sir Adrian Boult’s recording, one of his greatest records and possibly as authentic as it is unusual, for he based his urgent tempi on a performance he heard under Franck’s pupil Pierné. Much more recently Marek Janowki presented a similar view in state-of-the-art SACD sound and with the Suisse Romande Orchestra still showing traces of the old French style, so my recommendation would be that. Karajan showed that a more solemn view can be made to work, his Teutonic vision somewhat tempered by the fact that he is conducting the Orchestre de Paris.

There is much lovely pianism from Collard in the Variations Symphoniques. This rather gentle view culminates in an amiable final section suggestive of a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Bois de Boulogne. I rather liked it but I would always prefer something more dashing, such as the well-remembered Curzon.

Those used to Cortot in the Prélude, choral et fugue are going to find Collard hangs fire at the beginning, but taken on his own terms it’s very beautiful playing. The Choral has all the right fervour and the Fugue is kept moving. However, when the Choral theme reappears towards the close, with Cortot we are made to feel that we are at the beginning of a crescendo that’s going to grow and grow right to the end of the piece. Collard drifts of into a meditation of his own so the actual ending then sounds unprepared.

The Quatuor Muir essay a passionate, almost aggressive style in contrast to the gentle Collard. They settle upon a working agreement whereby the loud passages are feverishly upfront, the quiet ones slower and somewhat laid-back. I found it rather unfocused.

Much lovely playing from both partners in the sonata. Dumay is too closely recorded with the result that he dominates all too easily. With all the keyboard activity that is going on the sense of the piece should be that the violin is holding his own, but only by a whisker. At times, too, Dumay and Collard are too subtle for their own good. The last return of the canon theme in the finale is wistful and poetic, but it makes for another conclusion that is unprepared. Sometimes I wonder if this work doesn’t yield better to enthusiastic performances by students who have just got to master the notes, who feel they have all the world before them and to whom the Franck violin sonata seems the greatest music ever written.

Not many people carry their youthful aspirations and enthusiasms intact into later life. Nobody playing on this disc convinces me he has quite done so. One person who did was César Franck himself, and his greatest interpreters are those who can rekindle their youthful zeal through his music.

All in all I fear this is not really the best way to get your basic Franck. The excellent note by Roger Nichols rightly questions the “Pater seraphicus” image of the composer, but it is a poor match for a pair of records where most of the performers seem to accept it.

Christopher Howell 



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