Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Verona Quartet & Daniel Hsu: A Piano Quintet by Cesar Franck, Recovering Composer

Who: The Verona Quartet and pianist Daniel Hsu
What: Beethoven (Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op.110; String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2) and Cesar Franck (Piano Quintet in F Minor)
When: Wednesday, May 3rd, 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church
Why: With Beethoven on the first half of the program, there's a rarely heard work by Cesar Franck, his hyper-romantic Quintet, to conclude the 35th Anniversary Season of Market Square Concerts.

(You can read the earlier posts about Beethoven: The Piano Sonata, Op. 110  and The String Quartet, Op. 59/2, and also here)

There seem to be only a handful of Piano Quintets – the Usual Suspects, the ones most frequently heard, are the ones by Brahms and Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich. But on the periphery of audience awareness is the one by Cesar Franck, perhaps a distant fifth to that august group. You may have heard another even less familiar piano quintet – the one by Edward Elgar – at last summer's Market Square Concerts Summermusic.

So what is a “piano quintet”? Technically, it would be any group of five instruments of which one is a piano – as opposed to the rather cumbersome gathering of five pianists. Before 1800, both Mozart and Beethoven wrote quintets for piano and winds, but not one with strings.

And the most popular quintet with a piano in it is the one Franz Schubert wrote for some amateur musician-friends, the one known as the “Trout” Quintet. But technically we don't consider that a "piano quintet" as it's more of a "quintet for piano and strings" - not a string quartet but a violin, a viola, a cello and, rather out of the usual configuration, a double bass.

You see, sometime in the 1840s, Robert Schumann's recently published piano quintet solidified the definition as “a work for piano and string quartet.” Schumann's wasn't really the first, but let's say it was the first one to go on to win fame and fortune and to inspire Brahms and then Dvořák to compose their own.

A nephew of Prussian king Frederick the Great (himself a composer), Prince Louis Ferdinand was a soldier as well as a musician, a highly-acclaimed pianist and a composer who published a Piano Quintet in 1803, three years before his death on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars. However, one could claim it never became part of the repertoire (we assume, today) and never had a chance to inspire future generations.

On the other hand, one could point to Luigi Boccherini's six piano quintets, presumably composed in 1799 and, given Boccherini's role as a then-former court composer and cellist in Spain who counted King Friederich Wilhelm II (Frederick the Great's brother and successor, who also played the cello) as one of his patrons, it's possible Prince Louis was familiar with Boccherini's quintets despite their not having been officially published until 1820.

But Prince Louis was not unknown in musical circles: let it suffice to say Beethoven dedicated his 3rd Piano Concerto – the C Minor of 1803 – to Prince Louis Ferdinand, and Anton Reicha, a friend from Beethoven's youth in Bonn who himself went off to Paris to become a leading composer and teacher, wrote a massive set of piano variations specifically for Prince Louis.

And so, by circuitous connections, we come to Cesar Franck.

The great organist and composer we know of late-19th Century France was born in 1822 (Beethoven had just published his Piano Sonata Op. 110 in January of that year). He went to Paris as a child where he studied counterpoint with Anton Reicha.

Now, Kevin Bacon aside, I'm not sure how many degrees of separation that really is from Beethoven or Louis Ferdinand to Franck but other than a curious coincidence of the entanglements one frequently finds in music history, it has nothing to do with the F Minor Piano Quintet Cesar Franck completed in 1879.

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Franck's Piano Quintet is in three movement, omitting the scherzo of the standard four-movement format. But the number of movements isn't so much the point. It's more a question of balance and contrast and one of the key features of multi-movement instrumental forms, regardless of the medium it's written for – orchestra or chamber music – is how to achieve some kind of unity while creating sufficient variety to keep you interested.

Beethoven's solution to this in his 5th Symphony is to reintroduce that famous rhythmic pattern of the first movement's “fate-knocks-at-the-door” motive in the transition between the 3rd and 4th movements (the fact the two movements are connected without a break is no minor coincidence, either). In the Op.106 Sonata, the Hammerklavier, he begins the finale with improvisatory reminiscences of earlier themes from the other movements before deciding how to start the last movement, something he does more famously (and dramatically) at the start of the finale of his 9th Symphony, before ushering in the “Ode to Joy” Theme.

Franz Liszt's solution was to have every theme, no matter how much contrast there was between them, all based on a motive heard at the opening of the piece, something he used in some of his tone-poems like Les Preludes and in his Piano Sonata. This is known as “thematic transformation” and goes far beyond the idea of a composer developing a theme by tearing it apart and playing fragments against each other.

What Franck does is to take a particular and generally memorable theme and use it, often without changing it at all, in each movement, usually at some climactic point near the end of the movement. This gives the listener some sense of recognition – the perception of a work's form is, after all, based on memory – and a connection with something heard before. He does this not only in the Quintet, but also the Violin Sonata and the Symphony in D Minor.

If you don't think this works, go see a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Here are two complete performances of the Franck Quintet for you: the first is with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (if you like watching live performers); the second is the Schubert Society of London but with the score of the piece coordinated with the music (for those of you who enjoy following along).

Either way, listen for the Big Tune which first appears at 5:48 in the “live” version (4:42 in the “score” version); in the 2nd Movement at 22:33 (or 21:32); and, coming back like an old friend near the end of the last movement, at 35:41 (or 34:14).

While Franck's sense of tonality – still clear in Beethoven's Quartet and becoming a little ambiguous in the Sonata – is almost lost in a sea of “chromaticism,” that ability for almost any chord to shift ever so slightly and veer off into distant tonal realms, it is the harmonic tension he creates in his drive to resolve the tension and his use of the themes in this piece, in particular this recurring theme that breaks the boundaries of time and form, that gives the listener, frankly (no pun intended) something to hang on to.

Not that you need a third performance, but I highly recommend this 1986 video with the great Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, an amazing performance (even if the sound quality here is lacking a bit) with an edge that makes this sense of “tension and release” even more intense. Listen at least to the end of the 1st Movement and how that Big Tune helps drive the harmony home, beginning at 13:06. Notice how many times it begins to build, then falls back, until it finally collapses at 15:53 just before the end? You can't do that if you don't know what you're doing!

(Small world: Peter Sirotin tells me Richter's page-turner for this performance was a class-mate of his at the Moscow Conservatory, speaking of degrees of separation!)

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One of the first times I encountered the Franck Quintet live, the program notes said it was “an early piece.” Which made me attempt some mental math, always a risk sitting in a concert hall: Written in 1879, born in 1822 (okay, December of 1822), so how early could this be?

That would mean he was 56 when he composed it. How can that be “early”? Had he died at the age Beethoven died, it would've been his last piece – and we wouldn't know the tone-poem Le chausseur maudit (“The Accursed Hunstman”) (finished in 1882); the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1885); the A Major Violin Sonata (1886), his most popular work; and his Symphony in D Minor (1887-1888), his most acclaimed work. Not long after completing a large-scale if rarely heard String Quartet and writing his “Three Chorales,” a staple of the organist's repertoire, he died in 1890, a month before his 68th birthday.

But “early” is semi-accurate, here, not really an alternative fact. Franck was never the most secure composer in the world of classical music, after a failed career in the prodigy market, both as concert pianist and composer. Despite some success with his first published pieces, a set of Piano Trios written when he was in his late-teens that garnered the praise of no less than Franz Liszt, and more set-backs with some attempted operas in his mid-20s (having outgrown his prodigyhood), he was not really sure what he might pursue as a career, so he decided to focus on becoming an organist.

In this role, he became known as a teacher and an expert improviser (his improvisations at the conclusion of a service often became a reason music-lovers started flocking to his church), plus a champion of a new model of the pipe organ. He wrote choral music for the services – not meant to be artistic but practical – and we have this to thank for one of his most famous chestnuts, the Panis Angelicus.

Working and teaching in relative obscurity, suddenly other musicians began taking note of him and, during the nationalistic concerns about French art during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the fall of Napoleon III's empire, Franck's early Op. 1 Trio was performed again in Paris (ironically after having been performed across Germany by the great German conductor and Friend-of-Brahms, Hans von Bülow) and he found himself appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire which once would not admit him initially because he was an immigrant (born in what is now Belgium).

In the early-1870s, then, he began composing again – more full-scale "professional" choral works and operas, primarily, as well as organ works. In 1874, he heard for the first time the prelude to Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde which influenced the evolution of his chromatic harmonic language. He spent years working on a “monumental oratorio,” The Beatitudes, which he didn't finish until July, 1879, and then he finished his Piano Quintet, his first piece of chamber music since 1844, 35 years earlier!

For the premiere, the presenter somehow engaged the composer, organist, and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns which, looking back on it from the 21st Century, would seem logical – two of the greatest names in French music at the time, right?

But as far as Saint-Saëns was concerned, and indeed most of the musical establishment, Franck was not only not an important composer, he was an avant-garde composer – horrors! – writing in a chromatic Wagnerian style antithetical to Saint-Saëns' love of Mozart and Beethoven (despite the bombastic nature of some of his “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saëns was above all a classicist at heart). What could be further from what he considered the Artistic Truth than this dense, emotional, aimless chromatic floundering – he considered it “erotic” which wasn't helped by the scandal associated with Franck's having an affair with one of his students (Saint-Saëns' own lifestyle, aside) – but for some reason, he accepted the invitation to play the work.

And play it brilliantly. The composer was delighted even if the pianist apparently detested it. There are two stories associated with this premiere, and both of them can't be true. It was noted that at the end of the performance, Saint-Saëns left the stage (the implication was “in a hurry” as if not bowing), leaving the score open on the piano's music rack, a gesture usually associated with disdain for the piece. The other story was, after the concert, Franck wrote an effusive dedication “to my good friend, Camille Saint-Saëns” on the copy of the score the composer proudly handed him and which the pianist left behind in the Green Room before leaving the concert hall without a word.

But yet Saint-Saëns had the professionalism to give the piece a committed performance, and probably one of the best performances Franck ever had the opportunity to experience. More typical of his experience was a rehearsal of his tone-poem, Les Djinns in 1884, where the conductor turned to Franck at one point and asked “Does it please you?” to which the composer responded he was indeed very pleased. The conductor turned back to the orchestra and said “It's all frightful music, gentlemen, but we'll go on anyway.”

He had been awarded the Legion of Honor in 1885, a very distinguished award for an artist, but not because of his compositions: because he was an acclaimed teacher (and it would be his students who would have the most impact on French music, far more than his music had in his lifetime).

The premiere of the symphony in 1889 was a disaster (and a scandal). No less than Charles Gounod told people after the concert it was “the affirmation of incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths.” Another critic told a friend dismissively, “Who is Professor Franck? An organ professor, I believe.”

His one true popular success – both in terms of the performance and the audience reaction – was the premiere of his String Quartet in D Major in April of 1890. The acclaim was so great, the National Society that presented it had to schedule an additional performance the following month. Finally, Franck's friends thought, he had “arrived.”

In July, just a few months later, he was riding in a horse-drawn cab to give a lesson at the home of one of his students when the cab was struck by what is usually described as “an autobus” but in the days before cars and buses roamed the streets of Paris, this was more likely a horse-drawn trolley. Regardless, the accident was unnerving but not life-threatening, even though, once he reached his student's home, he fainted, refusing any medical attention. Later, however, he found walking had become painful and he then had to take a kind of sick-leave from his lessons, spending the summer at a country town outside Paris where he completed his Three Chorales for organ. When he returned to teaching in Paris, he caught a cold in October which then, in his weakened condition, developed into pleurisy with further complications. Things deteriorated rapidly and he died on November 8th, as I said, a month before his 68th birthday.

Again, the usual story I have heard as a student and read as a concert-goer was that Franck was run-over by a bus shortly after the premiere of his Symphony. Not quite – but tragic enough in reality.

And still, one wonders where Franck's musical style might have led him if this Piano Quintet was his first major achievement in a long-delayed career, a late-bloomer at 56?

Dick Strawser

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