It was only after many years of relative obscurity that the Belgian-born composer Cesar Franck began to assume a public position of influence in the musical life of Paris. Born in Liege in 1822, he had been intended by his father for a career as a virtuoso pianist and was launched into the world of public performance in 1835, with a repertoire that included comparatively superficial compositions of his own. Moving to Paris in the same year, Franck made his necessary concert debut in the city, continuing piano lessons with Gounod's father-in-law Zimmermann and lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Anton Reicha, before naturalisation as a French citizen allowed entry to the Conservatoire. In 1842 he left the Conservatoire, now with the immediate aim of fulfilling his father's ambitions for him. The years immediately following fell short of the latter's expectations, while Franck himself began to win some attention as a composer. In 1846 he left his father's house, now resolved to make his own way in music, as best he could, as a teacher and organist.
In 1848, during the June days of the workers uprising, Franck married. In 1853 he became organist at the church of St. Jean - St. Fran�ois du Marais, with its Cavaill�-Coll organ, embarking on an association with that firm, which provided a particularly fine instrument for the church of Ste. Clotilde, where Franck was appointed organist in 1858. Here he began to acquire a reputation for his improvisations and to attract pupils, who regarded him as their Pater seraphicus, a tribute to his character. In 1871 he was at last given an appointment at the Conservatoire as professor of organ, and now began to attract young composers to his classes, including, in 1872, Vincent d'Indy, who became one of Franck's most loyal disciples. The following years brought a number of important compositions, including the oratorio Les beatitudes, the symphonic poems Le chasseur maudit and Les Djinns, psyche and finally the symphony. Chamber music of the later period of his life included the piano quintet, violin sonata and piano quartet.
Franck's Symphonic Variations, among the most popular works of the repertoire for piano and orchestra, were written in 1885 and first performed at a soci�t� Nationale concert the following year. The Variations are scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, trumpets, timpani, strings and solo piano. The work opens with a string figure of urgent intensity, answered gently by the piano, a pattern of two distinct elements that continues. The introduction leads to a statement of the theme, already implied, and six variations, through which can be heard the opening string figure, while the material allotted to the piano in the introduction provides a mood of relaxation in a later episode and the bass part to a subsidiary subject in the final tripartite sonata-form structure with which the variations end.
Gabriel Faur�, like Franck, was for many years an outsider in the official musical world of Paris. Instead of entering the Conservatoire, he enrolled as a student at the Ecole Niedermeyer, with its emphasis on church music, sixteenth century counterpoint, plainchant and the organ. Here his most important teacher was Saint-Sa�ns, who became a close friend and mentor. From him Faur� acquired a wider range of contemporary musical interest than the school would have provided. Following an established French tradition, he started his professional career, after graduation in 1865, as an organist in Rennes, followed by a series of similar appointments in Paris, notably at St. Sulpice and at the Madeleine, and eventually, on the death of the conservative director Ambroise Thomas, to a position as teacher of composition at the Conservatoire, where his pupils included Ravel. It was in the aftermath of the scandal arising from Ravel's failure to win the Prix de Rome that Faur� was appointed director of the Conservatoire, a position he retained until 1920. As a composer he occupies an unrivalled place in French song, with a similar achievement in his music for piano. His musical language, advanced by the standards of his time, explores oblique harmonic relationships and often has about it a beauty and poignancy that reflects the mood at the time, the inexpressible yearning for an imagined past, heard above all in his settings at Verlaine.
Faur�'s Opus 19 Ballade was completed in 1879 and intended for solo piano, with a dedication to Saint-Sa�ns. It was arranged by the composer in 1881 for piano with orchestral accompaniment and revised twenty years later. Scored for an orchestra with pairs at flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, with strings, it opens with the piano statement of the F sharp major Ballade theme, with the gently increasing accompaniment of the strings and a passage in which the flute plays the theme in canon with the piano. This Andante cantabile is followed by a slower section, marked Lento, introduced by the cello, with a key change to E flat minor, the enharmonic equivalent of D sharp minor, the relative minor of the original key. Here there is a second theme, introduced by the first violins, to which the flute adds the earlier thematic material, the basis for a piano episode. An Andante allows the flute to introduce a third theme, punctuated by the gentle figuration of the piano, accompanied by muted lower strings. The third theme has foreshadowed the thematic material of the last section, marked Allegro, with the return of the second theme, as the work comes to an end, a tripartite structure of over-all unity.
The leading follower of C�sar Franck, Vincent d'Indy had already enjoyed same exposure as a composer before becoming a pupil of Franck in 1872, making his serious debut as a composer two years later. He was much influenced by Wagner, having been present at the first performance of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth in 1876, but nevertheless established his own characteristically French musical language in the following years. His influence as a teacher made itself felt particularly through the Schola Cantorum, which he established in Paris in 1894 with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, originally for the study of early church music, but soon a rival to the Conservatoire.
Vincent d'Indy's Symphonie sur un chant montagnard fran�ais, otherwise known as the Symphonie c�venole, from the source of its inspiration, the Cevennes, was written in 1886. It is scored for three flutes, two oboes, a cor anglais, two clarinets, a bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, pairs of trumpets and cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and triangle, harp, strings and solo piano. Franck, Faur� and d'Indy all made use of relatively novel structural techniques, new means of securing the musical unity of a composition, derived in part from Liszt's method of thematic metamorphosis. Franck's Symphonic Variations, like Faur�'s less substantial Ballade, interweave thematic elements to effect this unity. The mountain song, the folk-song theme on which the symphony is based, is appropriately heard from the cor anglais, accompanied by muted strings in the slow introductory section, the music growing faster as the solo piano is accompanied by a derivative of the song played by bassoon, cello and double bass. A piano version of the theme leads to a livelier elaboration of this and related material, the movement ending with the return of the cor anglais, again accompanied by muted strings. The second movement, slow, but not too slow, moves from the key of G major to B flat, the opening piano phrases capped by flute and strings. The theme is taken up by the whole orchestra and is later entrusted, a further reminiscence of Berlioz, to a solo viola. The original key is re-established in the animated finale, with its references to what has passed.
Reviewsa delight from beginning to end. At the Naxos price I wouldn't hesitate to add this gorgeous and moving new account of the French Mountain Air to my collection. - American Record Guide