CLAUDE FRANK 85th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION • Claude Frank (pn) • SONO LUMINUS DSL-92122 (2 CDs: 138:12)
SCHUMANN Arabeske. Fantasiestücke: Warum. Kinderszenen: Traümerei. MOZART Piano Sonata in C, K 330. Rondo in a, K 511. Read more class="COMPOSER12">SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in B?, D 960. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Nos. 30–32
The big question attached to this release is, “Why now?” Many collectors will recognize Claude Frank’s name from the complete set of Beethoven sonatas he recorded in the 1970s, and which were released on RCA Victrola LPs. (These now are available on Music & Arts.) There have been a couple of other releases since then—Beethoven’s and Schubert’s works for violin and piano, recorded with his daughter, Pamela Frank—but for the most part, Claude Frank is a major pianist who has been ignored by the recording industry. In other words, the present release is welcome, and very satisfying, and when I look at how many CDs Lang Lang has made since the start of his career, the infrequency of Frank’s recordings makes me mad.
Recorded in New York’s American Academy for Arts and Letters in 2008 and 2009, this pair of discs captures Frank a little before his 85th birthday. (He was born in 1925.) Initially, I thought that these were going to be live performances. Apparently they are not, but Frank’s playing, both intimate and communicative, suggests the presence of an audience of one—that being you, dear listener. Frank’s frequent vocalises, in the manner of Glenn Gould, will not endear these readings to everyone. Somehow, they add to the intimacy of the music-making.
In the generous booklet that accompanies this release, Frank discusses his lengthy studies with Artur Schnabel. (Frank studied with him between 1941 and 1951, but there was a break after he was drafted into the United States Army during World War II.) Frank’s repertory has much in common with Schnabel’s, and his playing resembles his teacher’s in several ways as well. Above all, effect for effect’s sake is rejected. Frank’s playing is not flashy, but it goes right to the music’s core like an arrow seeking the bull’s-eye. One way in which it differs from Schnabel’s is in Frank’s occasional use of a technique in which the left hand slightly anticipates the right. (This can be clearly heard in the middle movement, the Allegro molto, of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31.) I know this drives some listeners crazy, and if you are one of them, consider yourself warned. Frank doesn’t do it often enough to make it a mannerism, though. In the sequence of repeated G-Major chords that ushers in that final section, Frank (I think through a combination of pedaling and touch) creates a sonority I have never heard coming from a piano. A little later, in the final fugal section, Frank realizes Beethoven’s odd rhythmic dislocations with greater clarity than I have heard from any other pianist. In the three Beethoven sonatas, Frank does not suffer in comparison to his younger self, and the engineering is better, too.
The other performances are terrific as well. In Schubert’s sonata, Frank captures a quality that I consider essential to much of the composer’s later work, that being the song of a bird who sings still more beautifully even as he perceives that a cat is about to pounce on him. A similar quality pervades the Mozart Rondo in A Minor. Mozart’s Sonata in C is unaffected—it is neither fragile Dresden china nor a jolly rugby scrum. The Schumann miniatures are warm but not overly sentimental. Frank understands that romantic music does not mean “anything goes.” Above all, in all of these works, including the Beethoven, Frank lets the music speak for itself. Like the finest pianists at work today (Perahia, Lupu, Schiff, etc.), his personality supports the music and does not compete with it.
The musicianship on these discs stands up to anything else in front of the public at this time. Piano mavens whose heads are not turned by mere virtuosity should acquire this release immediately, if they have not done so already!
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
These 2008/09 recordings were made in anticipation of Claude Frank's 85th birthday on December 24, 2010, and testify to the veteran pianist's seasoned musicianship and remarkably intact technique. Frank always has played Schubert's final sonata supremely well, and you can forgive the occasionally uneven phrase or split note in light of the pianist's warm tone and intelligently shaped long lines, especially in the first-movement development section and throughout the slow movement. Frank's moderate tempo for the Scherzo allows the music its lilting, delicate due, while the finale boasts genuine cumulative urgency and a driving coda that ought to keep younger pianists humble.
The Mozart C major K. 330 sonata sports characterful grace, wit, and spot-on timing. Frank's bracing and direct treatment of the Mozart A minor Rondo demonstrates how to convey expressive niceties through color and nuance rather than by monkeying around with tempo. Likewise, the Schumann short pieces elicit eloquent, tellingly proportioned artistry.
By and large Frank plays the last three Beethoven sonatas with greater deliberation and lyricism than in his relatively faster RCA studio versions from nearly four decades earlier. The incisive punch and accentuation of yore has given way to more songful phrasing and room to breathe, although Frank's dynamic range ventures less toward Beethoven's extremes. This is a memorable release showcasing Claude Frank in authoritative performances of the music he loves best.