Trio Wanderer plays Franck – Piano Quintet, Piano Trio, Violin Sonata – Harmonia Mundi

by | Jun 1, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

FRANCK: Piano Quintet in F Minor; Violin Sonata in A Major; Piano Trio in F# Minor, Op. 1/1; VIERNE: Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 42 – Trio Wanderer/ Catherine Montier, violin/ Christophe Gaugué, cello – Harmonia mundi HMM 902318. 19 (2 CDs: 1:58:18) (5/26/23) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

From recording sessions in Poitiers, France, July and September 2022, Trio Wanderer explores the fascinating world of César Franck (1822-1890). Franck had been deeply impressed in 1837 by the four concerts dedicated to Beethoven trios organized by Liszt for a Parisian salon. The young Franck in 1842 began his own fertile relationship to chamber music with Trois Trios concertants, of which the first, in C Minor, receives attention from Trio Wanderer. Beethoven’s influence exerts itself no less in Franck’s reliance on cyclic form, especially prevalent in the German master’s Fifth Symphony, as a source of structural continuity.  Louis Vierne (1870-1937) follows Franck by way of artful imitation, no less a devotee of the cyclic procedure. But Vierne’s 1918 Piano Quintet casts a potent energy beyond any disclaimer of his being a mere epigone of the Master, since the work serves as a eulogy, a requiem, for the composer’s dead son, Jacques, slain in a major battle of WW I. In this spirit of valediction, the entire album is dedicated to the memory of pianist Nicholas Angelich (1970-2022).

Franck’s 1886 Piano Quintet, among his most overtly passionate works, while it may take the Piano Quintet of Johannes Brahms as its point of departure, appears to have been motivated by Franck’s ardent desire for one of his piano pupils, Augusta Holmes, to the chagrin of both his wife and the work’s dedicatee, Camille Saint-Saens. The work was premiered by the Marsick Quartet, with Camille Saint-Saëns playing the piano part, which Franck had written out for him with an appended note: “To my good friend Camille Saint-Saëns.” The work has been described as having a “torrid emotional power,” and Édouard Lalo characterized it as an “explosion.” No less influential in the heavily mercurial chromatic line, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, revealed to Franck in 1874, reverberates in the colors that quite leap from the collective ensemble. The keyboard part from Vincent Coq literally bristles with unabashed flair, bordering on hysteria in the first movement, Molto moderato quasi lento. The sheer number of polar opposite, dynamic markings, pp and fff, catapult past us, all in the grip of the applied vibrato of the participants. The music opens from the violin, fortissimo drammatico, to which the piano responds with a soft cantilena, and this thematic antiphon will dominate the work as a whole, even as the texture assumes a symphonic dimension.

The ensuing Lento, con molto sentimento proceeds as an extended operatic aria, the melody shared in labyrinthine vines of piano and strings. The original theme, in two four-bar phrases, had appeared eighteen times in movement one, and here it veils itself in softly languorous permutations in the form of an immense nocturne. Apocryphal as the report might be, the amorous throbbing pulsations in the movement caused auditor Franz Liszt to blush. The last movement, Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco, declaims the cyclic energies in magnified form, almost martial in sentiment. A fierce string buzzing sets off the momentum of this graduated drama, with the piano’s engaging in dialogue with selected instrumentalists. Franck, like Brahms, enlarges his coda almost as a new development, marking the end of the ritenuto dolcissimo molto espressivo and armonioso, as though the grand, sustained intimacy of the occasion has been consummated.

Louis Vierne enrolled as a student in César Franck’s organ class at the Paris Conservatory in 1889, advancing despite his blindness, into the class of Charles-Marie Widor in 1890. Vierne won the Premier Prix in 1894 and gained appointment as organist of the church of Saint-Sulpice and then at Notre-Dame in Paris from 1900 until his death in 1937. While recovering from glaucoma surgery in 1917, Vierne heard of his son’s death – possibly by firing squad for his refusal to fight – and the father decided to immortalize his son “with a roar of thunder not with the plaintive bleating of resigned, stupid sheep.”

The Vierne Piano Quintet means to infuse a work of vast proportions with the “breath of my tenderness and the tragic destiny of my child. I will carry out this work with an energy as fierce and furious as my grief is terrible. . .something powerful, grandiose and strong, which will stir in the hearts of fathers the deepest fibers of love for a dead son.” The gloomy opening in C Minor casts a haunted atmosphere, Poco lento – Moderato, the chromatic line astringently tonal and easily predictive of music by Reger, Schreker, and Korngold, but rife with emotional tension. Two themes emerge, that given to the strings intensely poignant. The colloquy between the interior strings proves lilted and nostalgic, easily comparable to the elegiac impulses in Fauré, but the subsequent upheavals, quite violent in tone, possess a fury akin to moments in Franck and Richard Strauss. The music grudgingly settles down, resigned and tragic.

The second movement, the heart of the composition, Larghetto sostenuto, features a wistful viola part in its low register, a lament of power and dignity. The calm exterior of the occasion finds unsettling intimations in the use of tremolo effects. We have a sort of lullaby, a grieving and sometimes bitter nostalgia, a remembrance of lost time. The passing moments in major suffer the same sense of emotional travail, impulses that laugh but smile no more. There are passages, some momentarily explosive, that easily recall Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht, darkly haunted. The piano has a cadenza section that invokes veiled strings to enter into the veiled passageways, music akin to some of Wilfred Owen’s war poems. The last movement, Maestoso. Agitato. Allegro molto risoluto, opens with harsh keyboard declamations, ushering in, cyclically, the Larghetto theme, but now in transformed guise, potent and bitter. The music proceeds in martial rhythms, the sense of warfare and loss imminent. Plucked strings and keyboard staccatos and glissandos add to the furor of battle imagery, Vierne’s competing with Liszt and Richard Strauss for militant suggestion. Suddenly, devoid of energy or martial commitment, the music proceeds in ghostly figures, only to surge forth once more, a kind of rebellion against Fate.  A melody arises, an attempt to find glory in the debris, the coda valiant in its effort to find meaning in willful tragedy. As an addendum to this review, consider the words of composer Louis Vierne:

“Perhaps one who has suffered every grief, every bitterness,
every anguish, may be able to ease and console the sufferings
of others—that is the role of the artist.”

Franck disciple Vincent D’Indy has spoken of Franck’s 1886 Violin Sonata in A as “the purest model of the cyclic technique.” Intended as a wedding gift for Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858-1931), the piece bears the hallmarks of opera composer Richard Wagner’s influence, asserting that his own “divine music” would accomplish what Tristan und Isolde had done for romantic love. Ysaÿe declared the first movement, Allegretto ben moderato “one long caress, a salubrious awakening on a summer morning.” The opening theme’s intervals, the major and minor third and falling semitone, sets the pattern for the entire work, which freely quotes and varies itself at  will. Violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian’s 1840 instrument projects a cutting, plaintive tone that emerges with even more force in the passionate second movement, Allegro, where the sequence C-C#-D-F-A-G-F assumes a visceral energy and re-emerges soon, gloriously, in D Major. In thunderous ensemble, Phillips-Varjabédian and Coq urge the music into swirling transports, each paroxysm more intensely realized than the last. The coda could well in orchestral transcription round off a furiously un-typical scherzo.

Something of the Bach solo partitas and sonatas infiltrates the opening of movement three, Recitativo-Fantasia: Ben moderato, which proceeds as a controlled improvisation on prior themes. The emotional gradation increases, mostly in half steps, until the climactic group: C-C#-D#-E=C#-B#-C#, which Ysaÿe called “heart-rending” and “sublime.” The last movement, Allegretto poco mosso, a seamless canon, earned Ysaÿe’s unbridled admiration, who claimed it “magnificently crowns the three preceding movements.” The return of the melody from the Fantasia suffices to tie the whole together both lyrically and dramatically. The ecstatic dedicatee Ysaÿe declared, “I will play this masterpiece wherever I can find a pianist of artistic stature.”

The 1842 three-movement Trio in C Minor boasts formal control and textural dexterity, with the opening, martial Andante con moto establishing two main motifs, one stolid and militant, staccato quarter-notes, the second sweetly persuasive, con duolo. Franck seems to have adopted impulses from Beethoven and Mendelssohn at once. Even here, Franck displays his economy, utilizing the motifs as the source for all three movements, cyclically. Cellist Raphael Pidoux enjoys his opportunities to enchant us with his deep tonal response, especially in the climactic passages, fuoco. The second movement, Allegro molto in B Minor, exerts more martial energies in repeated notes, often sforzando, and its inclusion of two trio sections in minor reflects Franck’s admiration of Robert Schumann. Attacca, the last movement Allegro maestoso (in F# Major) lustily proceeds in sonata form, with the keyboard part now having declared itself a virtuoso, octave-laden vehicle in the manner of Franz Liszt. As the expansive movement continues, some of the melodic texture in shifting rhythms resembles aspects of Dvorak’s style, sonorous and symphonic, simultaneously. The extended coda has a few grand surprises of its own.

This album presents us with at least two major works of the late Romantic idiom that deserve more attention in our concert life.

—Gary Lemco

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