The works of Cesar Franck and his followers, of whom Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas are the most familiar names, are seldom encountered either in the concert hall or on recordings outside their native France.
What bonds Franck & Company, beyond their common nationality, is that they are products of Wagnerism, harmonic children of "Tristan und Isolde." And while the world has taken (more or less) to the German products of Wagner's influence--Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler--interest in the French composers' response to Wagner, characteristically more formal and refined, has tended to evaporate beyond the Gallic borders.
The Erato label, a French affiliate of RCA, has been notably active in attempting to gain a broader international audience for Franck and the Franckians.
Among their recent releases is one devoted to the meticulous, unprolific Chausson: his elegiac Symphony in B-flat (1890), which retains the sinuousness and often misty harmonies of his master, as well as his love of cyclic form. Chausson, like Franck in his D-minor Symphony, deftly ties up his package by bringing together themes from the preceding movements (of which the slow, songlike second is particularly attractive) in a lively finale. The filler is "Viviane," a youthful tone poem that goes painlessly in one ear, out the other.
The recorded performances (Erato 75253, LP; 88169, CD) are by the Basel Symphony, which performs ably enough under the sensitive direction of Armin Jordan without supplying the rich, suggestive wind tone this music requires.
If Chausson sounds one rather downbeat note in his small output, the slightly more prolific Paul Dukas was not content to stay within a single mood, even displaying the occasional flash of humor, hardly a Franckian hallmark.
Dukas' Symphony in C dates from 1896 (all three composers managed to squeeze out but one symphony apiece) and has its strong points, but the real appeal of this Dukas program (Erato 75175, LP; 88089, CD) resides in "La Peri," a sexily gorgeous, sumptuously orchestrated slice of Gallic orientalia which takes the chromaticism of "Tristan" a few steps beyond even Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht."
Both the symphony and "La Peri" are smashingly performed by Armin Jordan and Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which--unless the Erato engineers are pulling some sort of enchanted electronic wool over our ears--has become the world-class orchestra it never was under its legendary founder and longtime leader, Ernest Ansermet.
The master himself, Franck, is represented by a trio of symphonic poems--the early (1877), wanly pretty "Les Eolides" (The Breezes); the bombastic "Le Chasseur Maudit" (The Accursed Hunter), later but retrogressive--or perhaps a tribute to Weber and Liszt--and the lusciously ripe (1886) "Psyche," purest, loveliest, most languorous Franck. The capable and superbly recorded performances are again by Jordan and Basel Symphony (Erato 72751, LP; 88167, CD).
What may be Franck's most durable composition, the Sonata (1886) for violin and piano, is available in no less than three new versions. Deutsche Grammophon's protagonists are a pair of gifted young Israelis, Shlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman, who play with spirited virtuosity and plenty of rhythmic freedom (415 683, LP or CD). Their program also contains the Violin Sonata of Debussy and Ravel's delectably jazzy Sonata in G.
Violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Marc Neikrug take a more stern and monumental approach to the Sonata--bigger in tone and certainly less fanciful. The coupling (on Philips 416 157, LP or CD) is a potboiler by Saint-Saens, his Sonata in D minor, in a technically masterful, impassioned interpretation by the same artists.
Version No. 3 comes from the little-known team of Pierre Amoyal, a French pupil of Jascha Heifetz, and pianist Mikhail Rudy (Erato 75258, LP; 88177, CD). Their vital performance generates the most heat of the three, with silken, voluptuous violin tone, a rhythmic scheme somewhere between the liberties of Mintz-Bronfman and the strictness of Zukerman-Neikrug, and a particularly full, vivid recording. Amoyal and Rudy couple Franck with Grieg's dramatic Sonata in C minor.
Finally, home base, Franck's Symphony in D minor itself, in a handsome new edition (Angel 38317, LP; CD not yet available) by the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra under Michel Plasson, who proves there can be life in this erstwhile war horse when it's thoughtfully shaped and energetically propelled. The symphony is coupled with a graceful, fluent reading by pianist Jean-Philippe Collard and Plasson of the once-popular "Symphonic Variations," the closest Franck ever came to projecting joviality in his music.