Orchestral Disc of the Month: 'Marek Janowski draws on all his operatic experience to make the melodic lines live and sing.... Best of all for me is the way Janowski responds to the variety of harmonic tension in both works: the more chromatic a chord, the more space he tends to give it without ever obstructing the flow.' BBC Music Magazine
Recording of the Month: 'I'm sorry I didn't have the Ansermet versions of these works to hand, to compare the orchestra then and now, but I think the great Swiss maestro would have been proud of his old band.' MusicWeb International
'Janowski's lucid and idiomatic accounts are self-recommending.' International Record Review
Constrained by a highly precarious financial situation following his scandalous divorce and new marriage with his disinherited lover, Claude Debussy had to seek recourse in writing music reviews during the last 15 years of his life: and this he did with staggering success. Despite the ironic quote in the epigraph, as well as his insistence in qualifying César Franck (1822-1890) as a "Belgian composer", Debussy held him in high esteem, and often teased him by opposing the "self-assured ingenuousness" of the latter to the "slyness" of Richard Wagner, whom the chauvinistic Debussy treated as a true whipping boy.
Although born in Liège, César Franck moved to Paris with his family at the age of 13, where he completed all his advanced musical studies: first as a virtuoso pianist, then as an organist, with equal skill. Only during the last 12 years of his life did Franck truly dedicate himself to composition, and this was only thanks to his harmony and organ students, who were as devoted as they were gifted, in particular Vincent d'Indy, Edouard Lalo and Henri Duparc. They and their fellow students, baptised "la bande à Franck" by their contemporaries, made up an unofficial composition class at the Jesuit College in the rue Vaugirard, and later at the Paris Conservatoire, and were continually promoting the oeuvre of their dearly beloved "Pater Seraphicus".
Dedicated to Duparc, the Symphony in D minor seems all the more remarkable when taking into consideration that Franck had only a handful of recent models in French repertoire when he started working on the score in 1886. The Organ Symphony No. 3 by Saint-Saëns dates from the same year, but his first two symphonies date back to 1855, as do the symphonies by Bizet and Gounod. Moreover, Franck had never before tackled the genre of the symphony proper, although he had come close to it with his symphonic poems such as the Eolides (1876) and the Djinns (1884), or his Variations symphoniques (1885), which is in fact a piano concerto, although not categorized as such. Nevertheless, when one is aware of the reciprocal emulation which reigned between master and pupils, and realizes that d'Indy and Lalo wrote their first symphonies in 1886, one is less surprised by Franck's decision.
Essentially written between September 1887 and August 1888, the critics gave the Symphony in D minor a disdainful, indeed at times aggressive reception following its première at the Concerts du Conservatoire in February 1889. Franck had become used to this a long time ago, as, apart from unusual successes such as the small symphonic poem Le chasseur maudit (1883) and his Variations symphoniques, his works had never enjoyed the favour of the Parisian musical scene. Furthermore, when the Symphony was first performed, still under the influence of the triumph which he had achieved with his Quintet for Piano and Strings, the composer interpreted the glacial silence of the public as a token of respectful reverence. One must mention that the work had its revenge after his death, and has remained up to our days a fixed standard in the concert repertoire.
"It is a classical symphony", Franck stated with regard to his score, which he nevertheless wished to be considered as a new and personal definition of the genre. While remaining true to the cyclical principle held dear by the composer, the Symphony in D minor in fact presents several innovations in form, of which the three-part structure is not the least. Although the introduction (Lento), based on a motif which can also be symphonic poem Les Préludes as well as in Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16, contains all that is most typical of the symphonies by Mozart or Haydn, this is hardly the case with the obligatory recapitulation, as it returns a minor third higher. By doing this, Franck believed he could fix the themes more firmly in the minds of the listeners, but the audience at the première considered it only a perversion of the most scandalous and unpardonable kind.
Formed by two phrases briefly played by the flutes and the oboes in the introduction, the principal subject of the initial Allegro non troppo is more successful at achieving the goal of the composer, with the incessant and very "Franckian" repetition of its "pivotal note" (the beginning of a motif) - however, this is indeed a risky procedure if the interpretation is colourless or lacking in nuance, like that given by Jules Garçin during the première. The development - magnificent - which contains a pronounced chromatism, represents the audacious and successful mixture of all preceding thematic material. The recapitulation is no less remarkable, with the transformation of the basic motif in a canon in the manner of a chorale - another procedure widely used by Franck in his music.
Typical for Franck, the central movement (Allegretto) is not just a single movement, but two, linked to one another, in which "each beat of the andante equals one whole bar of the scherzo". The motifs of the "andante" - a rather ponderous episode, rather like a funeral march, entrusted to the harp and the pizzicato strings, with a melody played by the cor anglais - are followed in the "scherzo" by two themes which are strongly contrasted as far as harmony is concerned, one of which is characterized by the string tremolos, the other by the clarinet, in marked rhythms.
As is obligatory in the cyclical form, the finale again takes up both the name (Allegro non troppo) and the thematic material of the first movement, as well as the principal motifs of the Allegretto. Nevertheless, as the composer made clear, "they do not appear as quotes, I make something of them, their role is that of new elements." Franck could have mentioned that he had added two new ideas to the finale. The first one, which can be heard during the first bars in the cellos and the bassoons, consists of a joyous and heroic march. The second one is presented in two stages, first by the trumpets, to which the violins respond, whereby this double subject forms a chorale. The melody of the cor anglais from the Allegretto signals the beginning of the development, in which the orchestra reviews the other themes - at times in the form of a chorale - before the triumphant return of the heroic march. To those who accused Franck's Symphony of being too long, Debussy replied as follows by way of tribute: "With Franck, it is a case of constant devotion to the music, and you can take it or leave it; no power on earth could make him interrupt the period of time he considers rightful and necessary. This is truly the sign of selfless reverie."
Member of the well-known "bande à Franck" (Franck's group) - the organ students of César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire, who included Vincent d'Indy, Edouard Lalo and Henri Duparc and who made up an unofficial composition class - Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) believed the mystic teachings of the French-Belgian composer to be more in line with his temperament than the rather academic instrumentation class given by Jules Massenet. Chausson did not try to avoid the Wagnerian pilgrimages to Bayreuth, an obligatory route for young French composers during the 1880s, despite the very recent disaster of the Franco-Prussian war. Nevertheless, unlike Debussy, for instance, Chausson never denied the impact of the German master on his music, even in his numerous melodies to texts by French poets.
The legacy of Massenet - elegant harmonies, subtle melodic lines and superficiality of expression - can be encountered side by side with the influence of Wagner and Franck during Chausson's first period, between 1878 and 1886. A second period of creativity, a deeper one, coincides with his collaboration with the Société nationale de musique, which was set up by Saint-Saëns, Franck and others in 1871. Closely confronted for the first time with the artistic environments and intellectuals of Paris, Chausson dedicated himself from that time onward mainly to large-scale works, of which the best include his Symphony in B flat, Op. 20 (1889-1890), Poème de l'amour et de la mer (1882-1893), the stage music for the Légende de Sainte Cécile (1891) and, most of all, his opera Le Roi Arthus, on which composition he worked for nine years (1886-1895) and which bears the imprint of Tristan in its libretto, its orchestral palette and its treatment of the motifs.
The year 1894 formed a turning point, in both the life and the musical language of Chausson. The death of his father served only to reinforce a latent pessimism already triggered by his discovery of the Russian novel (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy) and his setting to music of texts by the symbolist poets, notably Maeterlinck in Serres chaudes. Up until his death, which occurred at a tragically early age in 1899 following a bicycle accident, Chausson wrote page after page of overwhelming, premonitory beauty, notably Poème, for violin and orchestra, and Chanson perpétuelle, for voice and orchestra.
Unlike Franck, d'Indy and Lalo, who had very few recent models in the French repertoire at their disposal when composing their first symphonies in 1886, Chausson had more than enough from which to choose when he started on his Symphony three years later. Profoundly offended by the adjective "harmful" (i.e.: Germanic) which was continually applied by the critics to his early works, in his Symphony and his Poème de l'amour et de la mer, he attempted to further the "dé-Wagnérisation nécessaire de la musique française" (= "the necessary de-Wagnerisation of French music"), as he wrote to a Paris critic in 1888. This tendency increased during the last years of his life, thanks to the discovery of Debussy's music and to the bonds of friendship forged with him.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1880s, Chausson was well and truly beginning to break away from the grip of German music, while drawing closer to the principles held dear by Franck, such as the cyclical form, an intense lyricism and numerous harmonic modulations. The première of Chausson's Symphony at the Salle Erard in April 1891 under the baton of the composer met with immediate success: and this initial reception was to evolve into a triumph when it was played again by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Paris six years later.
Written in three-part form - as was Franck's Symphony - Chausson's Symphony also starts with a Lento introduction, which turns into an Allegro vivo. The motif of the Lento, which is both majestic and intense in the low registers, is amplified in a dramatic fashion, and then retreats in order to brusquely make way for the fast part. This part, with its extremely carefree theme played first by the bassoon and the horn, before passing on to the oboe, distinctly reminds one of the works from his youth. Two other subjects then appear successively, one with a strong rhythm in the woodwinds and the strings, the other exposed in a more lyrical manner by the violas and the cellos following a series of rising and descending notes played staccato by the woodwinds. Like Franck, Chausson manages to mix these thematic currents con brio, and the development is swarming with numerous nuances both in the flow, as well as in the ebb and flow of skilfully controlled tensions, up until the appearance of the coda presto and the return of the carefree theme, now blasted out by the brass.
The central movement (Très lent) must have entailed an immense effort on the part of Chausson: this is demonstrated by the deletions, erasures, overpastings and scribbles which appear in the autograph manuscript, as well as in the numerous rough copies and sketches which have come down to us. Nevertheless, nothing of all this is audible: this is where one can clearly recognize the genius of the composer, to quote Debussy on Franck. On the other hand, these incessant modifications give away the manner in which the composer continually called his work into question. This movement - which was by far the most Wagnerian of the entire score thanks to its marked chromatism, the sensual unfurling of its melodic lines, its more audacious harmonies and a certain religious fervour which one also comes across in Parsifal or Tannhäuser (two of Chausson's favourite works) - proves equally that Wagnerism still had some good days ahead of it in French music. Who could complain when listening to this magnificent score?
Like any good "Franckian", Chausson remained true to the cyclical principle. Thus, the finale (Animé) reviews all preceding material in a breathless pulsation, which only sporadically slackens. The power of the Lento appears to join in with the exaltation of the central movement in order to increase even more the dramatic tension which runs through this Symphony from beginning to end. During an extensive passage, the trumpets state a credo, but it is a profession of faith from which all ambiguity and doubt are now excluded. The rest of the orchestra is won over by this hard earned feeling of calm, before stating the sober initial motif for the last time.