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Franck: Symphony in D minor - Gimeno

Franck: Symphony in D minor - Gimeno

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186771

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Franck: Symphony in D minor, Symphonic Variations

Denis Kozhukhin, piano
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
Gustavo Gimeno, conductor


VOLUPTUOUS SOUNDS AND GRACEFUL CHARM
The Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and its Music Director Gustavo Gimeno present a composer portrait of César Franck. The album features the famous Symphony in D Minor, as well as the lesser known, but equally enchanting Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, with Denis Kozhukhin as soloist. Born in Liege but raised in Paris, Franck synthesized Wagnerism with French musical traditions, resulting in a fine equilibrium between a voluptuous orchestral sound and audacious harmonies on the one hand, and lucidity and graceful charm on the other. While the three-movement symphony follows a from-darkness-to-light trajectory, the delightful Variations oscillate between symphonic poem and miniature piano concerto.

The OPL and Gustavo Gimeno continue their acclaimed PENTATONE series of composer portraits that already featured monographs of Shostakovich, Bruckner, Ravel, Mahler, Stravinsky, Debussy and Rossini. Denis Kozhukhin adds another release to his extensive PENTATONE discography that already contains Grieg/Mendelssohn (2019), Strauss’s Burleske (2018), Piano Concertos by Ravel and Gershwin (2018), Tchaikovsky and Grieg (2016), as well as a Brahms solo recital (2017).

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 27, 2020

Many years ago, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg was our nearest live music option. Being a respectable regional orchestra, doing well under the baton of Bramwell Tovey, we enjoyed our yearly subscription. That was before the orchestra moved from the auditorium in the Luxemburg Conservatorium to the newly built Philharmonie. Time has gone by and now, listening to this new disc, I was more than surprised to discover how the orchestra had developed since. With its present Music Director, Gustavo Gimeno, at its helm and a solid complement of 88 musicians it clearly has become a first-rate formation of international standard. No wonder Pentatone has chosen to record with them some major classical repertoire in high definition.

Realizing that It may be difficult to exclude any degree of nostalgia in all this, fact remains that I was immediately touched by Gimeno’s squarely stated account of Franck’s Symphony. I can’t remember having heard it played like this before. Every single turn and twist seemed so right and so well-chosen that I could hardly think of any other way of doing it. Together with his mostly international players, he manages to lift the symphony into the ranks of symphonic compositions to be reckoned with. Like Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, one might say.

At the time, Central European style symphonies were not common currency in France. As a result, Franck’s attempt to combine French and German elements in his sole symphony did not enthuse the ‘beau monde’ in Paris. I have the feeling though that had Gemeno’s reading been the premiered version in the French capital, its reception would have been far more positive than the lukewarm interpretation by the Orchestre du Conservatoire. Only, as so often, after the composer’s death, did the same ‘beau monde’ embrace the power and beauty of this masterpiece.

I shall not pretend that there are no other good recordings of the symphony, and many may have their personal favourites, but in comparison with Pentatone’s previous recording, this one clearly wins the day. Why? Gemeno understands the contradictory moods hidden in the score. Whilst avoiding to lend too much unnecessary drama to the darker undercurrent, he intelligently unravels the complex textures. And in doing so, he inspires his musicians to follow suit, giving the best of themselves in terms of commitment and musical emotion. Isn’t that the secret of an inspirational conductor? It certainly is the hallmark of a good one.

In the second movement, Allegretto, Gimeno successfully challenges Janowski’s and several other accounts with a less hurried and even more stylish interpretation, allowing the cor anglais solo to bloom in tone and beauty. No doubt a matter of personal perspective and perception, but I liked it.

The biggest difference lies in the final movement. Despite Franck’s claim that he had no particular idea in mind and that it was “just music, nothing but pure music", theories soon emerged about similarities with Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies with a darkness-to-light design. In his excellent liner notes Andrew Deruchie does adhere to it as well: “progressing from a troubled D minor opening to a splendid and triumphant conclusion in D major.” I, too, find it hard to believe that an artist can create something without having a vision of some sort.

Whatever the case, interpreting an idea, if any, behind the notes may lead to totally different approaches as can be noted when comparing the two versions mentioned above. In my view, Janowski’s ‘triumph’ is too light-hearted. Having - I have to admit in all honesty - a more smoothly tuned orchestral body at his disposal, his reading is too polished, giving the impression of remaining at the surface practically all through the movement. Gimeno, on the other hand, delves more deeply into the score and the relation between the troubled beginning and triumphal end. Is he too heavy-handed? I think not. If, as many scholars agree, Richard Wagner is one of Franck’s sources, triumph never comes lightly. Gimeno’s reading of the final movement becomes one of a hard-won battle, demanding respect. I have no difficulty whatsoever to give him and his musician their proper due.

Rather than combining the symphony with another French one, as several other recording do – and the question then is: Which one if any of a similar standard – Pentatone gives us an additional 16 minutes of Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra with their star pianist Denis Koshukhin. I know, it does not fill up the disc to the rim, but isn’t quality more important than quantity?

It is, therefore, much more than an ordinary ‘filler’. It is one of those ‘instant liking’ compositions. It has beauty, it has ingenuity, it is a superb blend of piano and orchestra. Franck might as well have called it a Poem for Piano and Orchestra. Dennis Kozhukhin gives a delicate narrative in a broadly painted orchestral framework. Fine though it is, I would have appreciated a shade more finesse as offered by Alicia de Larrocha in her reading with The London Philharmonic under Frübeck de Burgos (Decca 417 583-2).

In the final analysis, I think that we have here a precious new ‘franck’ (as spelled on the cover) that can withstand with ease any competition, and meriting full attention of all those who have neglected French symphonic strength in between Berlioz’s ‘Fantastique’ and Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ symphonies.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2020 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by diw - June 9, 2020 (1 of 20)

Has anyone heard this recording? The previous Pentatone attempt at the Franck symphony didn’t even sound good. There are a number of classic versions but no other modern recordings. Come to think of it, there aren’t any comments on the entire Gimeno series. Surely someone must have an opinion?

Comment by john hunter - June 10, 2020 (2 of 20)

Am thinking of ordering it.The symphony is tremendous in the right hands but disappointed that there is only one coupling.

Comment by philip edwards - June 20, 2020 (3 of 20)

Five stars from Norman Lebrecht on Slippeddisc today. He loves both works.

Comment by Mark Werlin - June 28, 2020 (4 of 20)

Insightful review, Adrian. It is no small accomplishment for a conductor to find new meaning in older repertoire.

Please share with us the recording details of this DSD release.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - June 29, 2020 (5 of 20)

Good question, Mark. The answer is that I do not know for sure. On the Pentatone site only the physical product is available. Other releases in these series can be downloaded at the highest resolution. On the site of NativeDSD, however, Franck can be downloaded in DSD quality. The cover has all the logos but that’s no guarantee of the original recording quality.

According to the booklet, Karel Bruggeman (Polyhymnia International) was the ‘recording producer, balance engineer & editor’, together with Kees de Visser ‘recording engineer’. Recording made on location (Luxembourg).

My ears told me that the recording was not of the highest standard, hence half a star missing. To be sure, I checked with Reference Recordings Tchaikovsky 4. Is SoundMirror now the vanguard of Hi-Res recording? Sounds like it.

Comment by Mark Werlin - June 29, 2020 (6 of 20)

Some background on the producer of this recording:

Karel Bruggeman is a cellist as well as a tonmeister. He worked for Polyhymnia as an assistant engineer to Everett Porter and Erdo Groot prior to being assigned full production/engineering responsibilities for the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg - Gustavo Gimeno projects. Bruggeman produced Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - Gimeno, which perhaps deserves a site review.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - June 29, 2020 (7 of 20)

I reviewed the physical product, not the download from Native DSD.

Comment by john hunter - July 9, 2020 (8 of 20)

Have ordered this thru the Presto link here.
Looking forward to see how it compares with the Living Stereo Chicago recording under Monteux.
It was his party piece recorded in one day in January 1961.
Last movement dispatched in one take!
Also a great Mohr/Pfeiffer recording in 3 channel.
This 'old" one has set the bar high.

Comment by SACD-MAN (threerandot) - September 9, 2020 (9 of 20)

Has anyone noticed that Pentatone is releasing more standard CDs lately? Also, if I am not mistaken, it appears that Pentatone has no SACD releases planned for October. I hope this is only due to the pandemic and not going to mean Pentatone is planning to drop SACD. I also notice Chandos and BIS do not have as many SACD releases. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Comment by breydon_music - September 13, 2020 (10 of 20)

I noted Pentatone's withdrawal from an all-SACD release schedule on these pages at least a year ago, along with their increased number of PCM as opposed to DSD recordings. I invited their comment then but none has come, so who knows what their long-term plan is. However, I can't see any real change in the number of Chandos SACD's, and as far as I can see all of BIS' output remains SACD. If their release numbers overall are down, that may be the result of the pandemic rather than anything else. It will indeed be a sad day if Robert ever abandons physical hi-res and surround.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - September 14, 2020 (11 of 20)

According to Pentatone's planning, there will be several new releases in the coming months, like Handel’s Messiah (October) and Puccini’s Il Tabarro (December). No information about the format is given and risk becoming immaterial. The future for physical Pentatone products looks bleak. Read this article https://www.pentatonemusic.com/news/classical-musicians-embrace-streaming and in particular its conclusion: “For all these reasons, we at PENTATONE encourage classical artists and the classical music business in general to embrace streaming as the most powerful and profitable means of music consumption for the coming years”.

Comment by breydon_music - September 14, 2020 (12 of 20)

Thank you Adrian for this link which is edifying if not particularly uplifting. It's interesting that they are more enthusiastic about streaming than downloading, though I doubt that I will ever embrace either!

Comment by Mark Werlin - September 24, 2020 (13 of 20)

In the present dire circumstances, perhaps the only way that Pentatone can continue operating is to make most of their recordings in a format appropriate for streaming services, and when possible, record in DSD for the smaller SACD market. We can support Pentatone by purchasing SACDs as long as they are available, and expanding our acquisition of recordings to hi-res PCM and DSD downloads.

For labels to survive, music collectors may have to reconsider our relationship to the label as a form of long-term patronage, analogous to a concert season subscription that is renewed annually.

Comment by breydon_music - October 7, 2020 (14 of 20)

Adrian, I wonder if since being so impressed with Gimeno's Franck you have had a chance to listen to any of his previous Pentatone recordings with the same orchestra, albeit on a purely informal basis? I ask because they have received something of a battering critically - often this is not the whole picture and I would value your take on them if possible.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - October 9, 2020 (15 of 20)

I did not listen to any other releases in this series. As for this one: It is not unusual that reviews differ. One hundred percent objectivity does not exist, like my saying: “It may be difficult to exclude any degree of nostalgia in all this”. But a ‘battering’ strikes me as odd (to put it mildly). I wonder who it was and if it was an opinion in general or just about this recording.

Comment by breydon_music - October 9, 2020 (16 of 20)

Sorry Adrian we are at cross purposes. Not this one at all; in fact I have bought it on your recommendation and find it in every way a lovely disc. I was referring to some of the previous issues in this series, especially the Ravel and Debussy concerts as they are both full of music that would benefit from such excellent recording quality. My choice of the word "battering" may have been a tad strong; however the online reviews of each which I have seen have all been less than enthusiastic! As my age means that I am not now in gainful employment I was hoping to find a positive reaction to them somewhere before chancing my arm!

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - October 10, 2020 (17 of 20)

OK no harm done. Glad to hear that you like the Frank release. Why not sample the other ones online to be your own judge?

Comment by Mark Werlin - October 10, 2020 (18 of 20)

Excerpts of Debussy: La Mer, Images - Gimeno can be heard on the Presto site. I'm planning a review which will focus on the arrangements by Colin Matthews and Rudolf Escher.

Comment by john hunter - October 11, 2020 (19 of 20)

Very enjoyable performance and recording.
Good to hear.
Will be first choice over the Living Stereo

Comment by breydon_music - October 12, 2020 (20 of 20)

Thanks Mark, I will await your thoughts with interest.