Ingmar Lazar on Cesar Frank's complete piano works

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

French pianist Ingmar Lazar introduces his new recording of César Franck’s complete piano works, including an intriguing early sonata written when the composer was 13

Devoting yourself to the works of one composer is enlightening because it immerses you in their language and spirit. For my new album of music by César Franck I have explored every stage of the composer’s life.

Preparing this repertoire felt like reading Franck’s biography: from his first ambitious attempt at composition with his Sonata, via his strong-willed virtuosity in the Grand Caprice, to the culmination of his musical expression in his great late triptychs. I found it particularly revelatory to get to know his youthful compositions, written before he became an organist. The fact that he wrote a work such as the Grand Caprice shows he must have been a tremendous pianist, and is proof that he was already an incredible musician by his early 20s.

I have been fascinated with Franck’s music since my teens and have previously performed his Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata. Prior to making this album I already knew the two triptychs and Grand Caprice, but his Sonata was a new discovery for me as it has never been published.

It is impossible to recognise Franck as we know him by listening to the Sonata, which he wrote at the age of 13, but it is fascinating to hear how much his music evolved when you place it alongside his later works. While the Sonata is extremely charming, it sounds as if its composer is still searching for his own voice. The music contains many stylistic references, ranging from Mozart and Daniel Steibelt to Hummel, and even Schubert. What is noticeable in this composition is Franck’s great musicality and sensitivity plus some truly beautifulthemes. There are also some small adumbrations of the cyclic form that later became one of his trademarks: the tremolos in the introduction of the first movement appear again in the dramatic culmination of the second movement. The way Franck transforms the calm opening theme of this second movement, transforming it into a storm of passion at its climax, is among his first experiments in giving different meanings to the same theme. The Grand Caprice is a rich and demanding work. Both sweet and dramatic, joyful and dark, it traverses many moods. Such a composition can readily fall apart and lose its coherence. Yet Franck proves he is a master of form, bringing an incredible sense of unity to this piece in the way he develops the initial contrasting themes. This kind of virtuosity is much less evident in Franck’s later works for piano.

Ingmar Lazar considers Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue to be one of the great masterpieces of the piano repertoire (image: Andrey Klimontov)

Saint-Saëns was highly critical of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, calling it ‘a morceau anything but pleasant or convenient to play’. I couldn’t agree less! In my view it is one of the greatest masterpieces ever written for the piano. Instead of writing a more conventional Prelude and Fugue, Franck connected them with a Chorale, which is the work’s emotional core. The traditional forms Franck inherited from the Baroque era are freed from their usual compositional constraints in order to deliver a powerful message of deep spirituality. The Prelude, Chorale and Fugue embodies a strong will capable of overcoming challenges and culminates in a triumphant blaze. The Prelude, Aria and Finale is no less successful in reaching its goals, but achieves victory through resilience and acceptance. The peacefulness of this latter work’s closing bars offers a message of great hope and reflects Franck’s sagacity and introspection. While the Aria could also have been named Chorale, the secular connotations of the aria are essential for understanding this work. It should be celebrated as a composition written by a human soul that speaks to all men. This masterpiece can also be seen as the culmination of a life dedicated to music, when Franck’s way of writing became even more intricate and complex. Yet this was always to serve his authentic artistic ideals, and never as a demonstration of pure intellect. The highly spiritual content of these late masterpieces means they need to be played in a highly expressive and passionate manner. A powerful performance that neglects the sacred aspect of this music would misrepresent its original message. It would also be a mistake to play these pieces too rigorously, as they are full of fantasy, recalling Franck’s incredible abilities as an improviser.

Because the textures of this music are incredibly rich, it is important to strike the right balance between making the listener aware of the harmonic twists and turns while not getting lost in the details. The same is true of the form of these compositions, whose various sections and movements need to be connected to achieve a sense of majestic unity. Furthermore, Franck was known for having a large hand of approximately the same span as Rachmaninov’s, which is evident in the way he writes for the keyboard. The resulting stretches can cause discomfort for some pianists.

It is interesting to see how Franck’s popularity has waxed and waned over time. His Symphony in D minor, for instance, was once one of the most popular symphonic works. In the 1920s it was performed by the New York Philharmonic as often as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony! This success lasted for several decades, yet today it is rarely performed.

During his lifetime Franck was mostly known as a teacher and organist, and his name remains strongly associated with organ music. This fame has overshadowed the fact that prior to becoming an organist Franck was a virtuoso pianist. Perhaps that’s because he didn’t leave many piano works – a gap of almost 40 years separates the Grand Caprice (1845) from the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1884). In my view, this means one should cherish his small output for piano even more dearly!

I will be satisfied if my recordings succeed in transmitting an emotional message that moves listeners. I also hope this album will encourage more people to come to know and appreciate Franck’s piano music, while casting fresh light on his youthful works, which remain unfairly neglected.

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