Naxos has added another milestone recording to its already prestigious catalogue of great classical works. The CD that presents the string quartet in D major and the piano quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck and that has been published by Naxos constitutes a recording of exceptional quality, technically and artistically.
The string quartet is performed by the Fine Arts Quartet, with Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins, Yuri Gandelsman, viola and Wolfgang Laufer, cello. They are joined by Brazilian virtuoso pianist Cristina Ortiz for the piano quintet.
The material on the CD is particularly interesting, for both compositions were written towards the end of Franck’s life. The musician died in 1890. They are, therefore, pieces that showcase the mature creativity and writing skills of the great composer, and are representative of his art. This happened at a period that saw the transition of classical music from romantic to impressionistic. The string quartet and the piano quintet are good examples of this transitional period.
The music is complex and deep, the string quartet particularly. For many critics and musicologists it represents the summit of Franck’s art. The harmonic structure ushers the listener into the twentieth century and its typical dissonance, but it remains accessible. The piano quintet is built around what is referred to in classical as a cyclic theme construction. It bears lines that are more romantic that the string quartet, and in the end may prove to be more attractive to listen to and enjoy, at least for those not well familiar with “heavy” classical music.
Both are long pieces. The string quartet is in four movements and lasts 44 minutes. The quintet is in three movements and lasts 35 minutes.
There are several recordings of the same pieces by Cesar Franck, yet this new one clearly stands out. With it, and chiefly thanks to the superlative interpretation of the Fine Arts Quartet and Cristina Ortiz, Naxos has succeeded one more time in producing another reference classical CD.
The interpretation of the Fine Arts Quartet and Cristina Ortiz is immaculate. For more than 20 years Ortiz has graced live concerts and studio recordings with her passionate playing. She has worked with the greatest conductors such as Mariss Jansons and Vladimir Ashkenazy, also appearing with prestigious ensembles like the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras.
The clarity of the musicians’ performance greatly helps the listener to overcome the inherent difficulty of Francks’s music and therefore to fully appreciate its beauty. The music is difficult to play as much as it is difficult to listen to, but the result is a rewarding, uplifting experience. There is intense emotional range in the sound, perfectly channelled by the musicians.
The recording was done at L’Heure Bleue music hall in Switzerland, at La Chaux de Fonds, a venue known for its excellent acoustics. The CD is an audiophile dream and will make the best out of high-end stereo systems. The sound of the violins is crystal clear without being harsh or too sharp; there’s just the right amount of brightness. The tone of the piano is exquisite and definitely romantic, the notes well detached. The amount of hall reverberation is ideal, and despite the complexity of the music, everything remains transparent, obvious.
Franck (1822-1890) was born in Liege in Belgium, but mainly lived and worked in France. Though he may be less known today by the wider public than giants like Beethoven or Brahms, Franck was admired by these two composers, precisely because of his talent at writing using the cyclic theme structure. Franck’s best known, most played short piece is the famous Panis Angelicus, a vocal composition for tenor, chorus and orchestra, taken from his Messe Solennelle. One of the most popular “crossover” versions of Panis Angelicus was performed a few years ago by Pavarotti, Sting and their friends.
Naxos CDs are usually sold in Jordan but the availability is random. Finding the album you are looking for is not always easy. The discs can be bought and downloaded from the web though Classicsonline, in high resolution MP3 format (320kbps). The download will also include the accompanying booklet.