Notes and Editorial Reviews
Prelude, Choral and Fugue.
. Prelude, Aria and Finale. Symphonic Variations. Prelude, Fugue and Variation
(piano and harmonium version)
Bertrand Chamayou (pn); Stéphane Denève, cond; Royal Scottish NO; Olivier Latry (hrm)
NAÏVE 5208 (73:00)
For dedicated Frankophiles, here is a well-filled program containing all of the composer’s most popular works for solo piano and for piano with
orchestra on a single CD.
At 29, Toulouse-born pianist Bertrand Chamayou has already built an impressive career, appearing in concerts and recitals throughout Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada. Murray Perahia, Leon Fleisher, and Aldo Ciccolini have been among Chamayou’s mentors, and he has partnered in chamber music with Augustin Dumay, the Capuçon brothers, and the Ysaÿe and Ebène Quartets. A previous CD of solo piano pieces by Mendelssohn was warmly received and recommended by Lynn René Bayley in
Judging by the number of recordings, César Franck’s most popular piece is his Violin Sonata in A Major. But focusing more narrowly on just the composer’s works for piano solo and for piano with orchestra, one can safely say that the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, with more than 50 current listings, and the Prelude, Choral and Fugue for solo piano with more than 40 current listings lead the pack, with the others trailing far behind.
For all its brevity, the Symphonic Variations, which lasts only 14 minutes in this recording, is a much more complex piece than its three-movements-in-one mini-concerto format played out as an introductory theme, variations, and finale might suggest. Donald Tovey called it “a freely-organized fantasy, with an important episode in variation form.” If that were the end of it, we might attribute the score’s structural oddity to Franck’s passion for cyclic principles of composition. But the harder one looks at the piece, the odder it becomes. To quote from
A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians
by Ethan Mordden: “The slow introduction sounds as if the variation process is already underway, as the first themes that one hears begin at once to vary. But not till the tempo picks up some minutes later do the variations proper occur. A double trill on the piano signals the finale, no mere coda but a little symphonic movement in its own right, with first and second themes, development, and recapitulation.” As Mordden wryly observes, “Leave it to the individualist Franck not to write a common or garden-variety piano concerto.”
(The Demons) is altogether easier to understand, though one can debate whether it’s a one-movement piano concerto
tone poem or a tone poem
piano concerto. Either way, the presence of the piano is far too constant, too front-and-center, and too significant to call it an obbligato part.
Not without reason is Franck’s 1884 Prelude, Choral and Fugue, as noted above, his most frequently performed and recorded work for piano solo. In its category it’s undoubtedly the composer’s finest achievement, and clearly a tribute to Bach. Following it three years later comes its companion piece of sorts, the Prelude, Aria and Finale. Faced with its technical demands—Franck’s wicked keyboard writing requires exceptionally large hands capable of spanning a number of 11ths and at one point a 13th—most pianists choose to practice abstinence rather than risk tearing a tendon; for not counting the CD at hand, ArkivMusic currently lists only seven other recordings, that compared to 40 for the Prelude, Choral and Fugue. But I don’t think it’s just the technical difficulty of the piece that accounts for its unpopularity. The truth is it possesses neither the structural coherence nor the emotional sweep of its older sibling.
To close his program, Chamayou teams up with Olivier Latry to perform Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variation in a c.1865 version for piano and harmonium. Third in the set of Six Pieces, op. 18, the work was originally conceived for organ, but it exists in transcriptions for solo piano, chief among which are those by Alfred Cortot and Harold Bauer. According to Chamayou’s booklet note, Franck himself is responsible for the piano and harmonium transcription heard here.
Surprisingly, I find no other currently listed recording that contains all of these works on a single disc. The closest—and it remains a significant competitor despite its age—is EMI’s CD with Aldo Ciccolini, a pianist noted for his insightful interpretations of French repertoire, including the works of Franck, Saint-Saëns, and Satie. But that disc does not contain
. Content, by itself, however, would be immaterial if Chamayou’s playing and performances were not a match for the best in various mixes of these works, among which I would cite Stephen Hough for his Hyperion recital, Jorge Bolet for his Decca effort, and a special favorite of mine, Jean-Philippe Collard on EMI. Chamayou’s technical command is awesome, his tone production and pedaling pristine, and the range of his emotional sweep, particularly in the concluding pages of the Prelude, Choral and Fugue, awe-inspiring.
Chamayou’s CD is enthusiastically recommended, even to those who may not be Franck’s most ardent admirers.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Les Djinns, M 45 by César Franck
Bertrand Chamayou (Piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written: 1884; France
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