FRANCK: String Quartet in D Major; Piano Quintet in F minor – Fine Arts Quartet/Christina Ortiz, piano – Naxos 8.572009, 79:19 *****:
I admit to not being an aficianado of string quartets, but have always loved those of Franck, Debussy, Ravel and Faure. I recall discovering both of these Franck chamber works for the first time many years ago on the red vinyl mail-order LPs from The Chamber Music Society. Of course each one took both sides of an entire LP – there were no LPs with anywhere near 79 minutes of music contained on them!
Franck wrote only a single quartet and a single quintet plus a few other chamber works, but he revitalized the chamber music genre. His primary contribution is the cyclic form – creating a unity among the various movements thru generation of all the principle themes from a single germinal motif. In the final movement of his works the interrelated melodic subjects are then recapitulated. Debussy and Ravel also often used the cyclic form, though differently from Franck. (Franck’s Symphony in D minor has probably introduced more fledgling listeners to classical symphonic music than any other work. Back in the era of “tapespondence” – w-a-y before email – I recall a friend excitedly telling me on the tape, with the symphony playing in the background, that he dug the new album he had just purchased by “Ceasar Frank and his Orchestra.”)
The Fine Arts Quartet go back many years as well – over half a century. Founded in Chicago in 1946, they have been one of the most important and longest-running groups in chamber music, with a host of recordings. Since 1985 they have recorded over 65 works. During their first 30 years they made many recordings for Decca, Vanguard, Vox and Concert Disc. Some fine remasterings from Concert Disc are available on the Boston Skyline label. American Record Guide named their SACD of the Mozart String Quintets (which we also reviewed) as their Critic’s Choice of 2003.
Three of the quartet’s members have been with the group for over a quarter century: Ralph Evans, Efim Boico and Wolfgang Laufer. Violist Yuri Gandelsman is heard on this Naxos CD.
The Quartet in D is 43 minutes long and is a complex work with a number of lovely themes, all connected to one another and all returning in the remarkable final movement that unites the work with a great deal of contrapuntal treatment of the themes. The Quintet (by the way, pianist Christina Ortiz joined with the Fine Arts in a previous Naxos CD of Faure’s Piano Quintets) was composed a decade before the Quartet, is considered the height of the composer’s chamber music skills, and possessed of a wide emotional range. Both it and the Quartet balance the French musical influences with a debt to German musical tradition, including Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Recorded in Switzerland, the engineering is excellent, with silky string tone.
– John Sunier