FRANCK César, Piano Quintet in F minor

1. Molto moderato quasi lento
2. Lento, con molto sentimento
3. Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco

 

Born in Liège (now in Belgium), César Franck first established his reputation in Paris as supremely gifted organist at the church of St, Clotilde, where he became famous for his improvisations, but as he grew older he became more innovative – and hugely influential – as a composer. Following his appointment as a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, his pupils included Chausson and Duparc, as well as organists such as Vierne. Unlike Saint-Saëns, Franck was not particularly prolific, but his three late chamber music masterpieces – the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and the present Quintet – demonstrate a composer of striking originality at the height of his powers. The Quintet was composed between Autumn 1878 and July 1879, and first performed at the concerts of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris on 17 January 1880. It caused something of an uproar, with Franck’s pupils wildly enthusiastic, and other members of the audience stunned into silence. Fellow-composer Édouard Lalo described the Quintet as ‘an explosion’ – an apt description for what is certainly one of Franck’s most searing and emotional works. It wasn’t only the audience who were baffled. Franck has dedicated the piece to Saint-Saëns who played the piano at the premiere, but he was dismissive of it. In a particularly insulting gesture, he walked off stage at the end of the performance and left the manuscript that Franck had copied specially for him on the piano.

This expansive and grandly-conceived Piano Quintet is a fine example of Franck’s use of cyclic form, where themes are woven through all three movements. Unlike Brahms’s Piano Quintet (in the same key), Franck has no Scherzo, but moments such as the ostinato-driven start of the Finale ensure that there’s no shortage of urgency and fire in the work. At the close the work’s main motto theme returns in a triumphant transformation.

 

Nigel Simeone ©2014

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