Franck: Symphony in D minor - Gimeno
PentaTone Classics PTC 5186771
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