Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trio in Eb,
Cello Sonata in F,
Violin Sonata in A,
Shmuel Ashkenasi (vn);
Yehuda Hanani (vc);
James Tocco (pn)
NAXOS 8572480 (79:51)
If Naxos has taken notice of Eduard Franck (1817–1893), a composer heretofore championed virtually exclusively by just two labels, Audite and Fermate, can a major revival of his works be far behind? It seems that colleague Maria Nockin beat me to the punch on this release when she reviewed it as part of an interview with the disc’s cellist, Yehuda Hanani, in 35:3, but that’s fine because Franck can use the exposure.
The A-Major Violin Sonata is not new to CD; it has been previously recorded twice, in 2000 by Florian Meierott and Thomas Hans for Antes, and again in 2008 by Christiane Edinger and pianist James Tocco—who also appears on the present Naxos disc—for Audite, and in SACD, no less. Also in SACD Audite recorded two of Franck’s piano trios, but not the one in Eb-Major heard here. Likewise, Audite recorded a disc of the composer’s cello sonatas with Thomas Blees and Roswitha Gediga which also contains the F-Major Sonata that is on this disc, meaning that two of the three works on this Naxos release are duplicated elsewhere. Happily, as far as I can tell, the Eb-Major Piano Trio has not been previously recorded. With more and more of Eduard Franck’s work catalog becoming known—much of it in the area of chamber music—this release could have been even more valuable had Naxos and these artists found something new to present rather than performances of the violin and cello sonatas already recorded.
When I first saw the name Shmuel Ashkenasi on this disc, I was momentarily taken aback. My first encounter with him as a soloist was on a Deutsche Grammophon LP playing Paganini’s First and Second Violin Concertos with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra led by Heribert Esser, a recording which had to go back to the 1960s. I must not have cared much for it because I didn’t keep the recording. After that, I can’t recall any subsequent Ashkenasi releases wherein the violinist was featured as a soloist, but in 1969, he formed the Vermeer Quartet and remained the ensemble’s first violin until 2007 when the group disbanded.
No disrespect intended, but Ashkenasi has flown so low under the radar that I honestly didn’t know he was still with us, which accounts for my surprise when he popped up on this Naxos CD. According to his bio, he was born in 1941, and the piano trio and violin sonata on this disc were recorded in 2009 and 2010, respectively, which would make Ashkenasi 68 and 69 at the time of these recordings. Many violinists, of course, have continued to play as long and longer, and Christiane Edinger wasn’t that much younger—she was born in 1945—when she recorded the same violin sonata with James Tocco in 2008, but her performance feels so much more alive and responsive to Franck’s “youthful” sounding ardor.
“Youthful” is in quotes because the composer was 42 when he wrote the piece in 1859, but the music conveys feelings of innocence and spring. Much is said in the album note, and in previous reviews, about Franck’s connection to Mendelssohn, but this particular score has more in common with Schubert, and a radiant, untroubled Schubert at that. Just listen to the piano’s chordal beginning to the
movement. One can almost hear a voice entering singing a song instead of the violin. But this music is at once neither psychologically complex enough to be by Schubert nor physically mercurial enough to be by Mendelssohn. It hovers somewhere in between seasons and changing climates.
A date for Franck’s Eb-Major Piano Trio is not given, but being assigned one opus number earlier than the violin sonata, one assumes the two works were written around the same time. The easy-flowing textures of the piece and its insouciant melodies convey a carefree, happy-go-lucky atmosphere, which, frankly, renders the piece somewhat simpleminded and superficial sounding.
The F-Major Cello Sonata is Franck’s second work in the medium for the instrument, and despite its higher opus number—explained by the fact that the piece wasn’t published until 1882—it was almost certainly written at approximately the same time as the First Cello Sonata around 1850 or earlier. That would date the piece even before the violin sonata and the piano trio. Once again, Franck’s musical inspiration is light on gravitas, but he makes a serious stab at it in the lengthy slow movement, marked
Adagio molto espressivo.
For the cello sonata, I would definitely recommend Yehuda Hanani and James Tocco over Blees and Gediga on Audite, but for the violin sonata, I find Edinger more convincing, no more so than Ashkenasi in technical security, but interpretively more in keeping with the lighthearted spirit of the score. For the piano trio there is no current alternative as far as I know.
Admittedly, being a compulsive collector of chamber works by 19th- and early 20th-century Romantic composers, I’m probably more familiar with Eduard Franck’s music than are most, having acquired every release of his works Audite has put out. So, while I might be inclined to point you towards another recording in favor of this one, if you’re new to Franck, Naxos’s CD provides a good sampling of his chamber music in perfectly good performances and at a price that makes giving Franck a try a financially painless proposition. If you like what you hear, you can always come back for more.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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