César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor; Igor Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka

Music critic Roger Dettmer of the Chicago American called Pierre Monteux’s performance of César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor “a model of rectitude and dignity.” Anyone who has paid much attention to the course of music in the 19th century, particularly in Paris, the musical capital of the world at that time, knows full well that Franck’s masterpiece was one of those that almost caused a riot at its premiere, so the rectitude and dignity are perhaps due more to the effects of history than anything inherent in the music.

Franck was what we used to call a “late bloomer.” His early chamber works showed promise, but for the next thirty-odd years “Pater Seraphicus,” as his students called him behind his back, produced earnestly dull and sometimes saccharine works for the organ, which he played at the church of Sainte Clothilde in Paris. (Trust me — this is not second-hand information: I had an LP of some of those organ works. It remained, for easily discernible reasons, in almost pristine condition.) As the anonymous writer of the notes on my LP of the symphony remarked, until the mid-1870s, “his fame was quite commensurate with his achievement.” Then the Symphony in D Minor happened. It was premiered at the Conservatoire in February, 1889. No less an authority than Charles Gounod was openly contemptuous of the work, which is arguably the greatest nonprogrammatic symphony ever written by a Frenchman (by residence, at least: Franck was born in Belgium), calling it a travesty. The more sensational accounts speak of catcalls and boos fighting with wild applause and bravos. Franck’s response to his family’s eager inquiries after the concert was quite typical: “Oh, it sounded well, just as I thought it would.”

How to describe this music? The opening bars are moody, almost threatening, the theme first stated on the low strings, nearly sotto voce, crescendi, such as they are, very much understated. There is a high degree of tension that recalls to some extent the more nerve-stretching parts of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, but Franck’s work is unique: this is the High Romanticism of the French, acknowledging Berlioz, Wagner, and Bruckner, but, of course, following its own path. The final Allegro non troppo starts strong and goes on from there, never losing the sweetness but displaying all the “Sturm und Drang” that one could wish. One wonders that a sixty-six year old music teacher created a work so intensely passionate, sweetly melodic, at the high points almost raucously joyful, but with an undercurrent of angst that adds gravity without hampering that reach toward the sky. It is pitifully easy to get completely caught up in this music

Speaking of riots at premieres, Igor Stravinsky, who is quite possibly the dominant figure in the music of the first half of the twentieth century, certainly had his share. While Pétrouchka did not, so far as I know, actually start a riot, as did Le Sacre du printemps, it certainly, by the standards of its day, had the potential. (The premiere, by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1911, was, as a matter of fact, conducted by Pierre Monteux, to Stravinsky’s complete satisfaction.)

Alfred Frankenstein calls Pétrouchka “one of the most specifically pictorial and descriptive” scores in the literature; it began as an idea for a piece for piano and orchestra, with the piano as a sort of puppet “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios” (from Stravinsky’s autobiography). The orchestra responds with threatening trumpet blasts, and the whole reaches its climax in the collapse of the puppet. And that, in a nutshell is the story of the ballet. (The idea was hammered out by Diaghilev and Stravinsky in 1910.) The action takes place during the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg; the Charlatan displays three puppets: Pétrouchka, the Moor, and the Ballerina. As Stravinsky describes it, Pétrouchka “bitterly resents the Charlatan’s cruelty, his own slavery . . . his ugliness and ridiculous appearance. He seeks consolation in the love of the Ballerina . . . but she is only frightened by his strange ways.” The Moor “is stupid and evil, but his sumptuous clothes attract the Ballerina.”

This is the pre-World War I, pre-classicist Stravinsky, who has absorbed all the lessons of Russian music from the nineteenth century and turned them to the service of the avant-garde: the music shimmers, punctuated by staccato sections that have become the idiom for composers portraying crowds and movement. It is, indeed, intensely pictorial — it is very easy to visualize the scene, the action, the characters. Pétrouchka is, quite simply, one of the type specimens for music until the advent of the Schoenbergian serialists and the serial minimalists: echoes of this music can be found everywhere from “modern” orchestral works of the thirties and forties to movie soundtracks and Broadway musicals. It also happens to be fun to listen to.

Pierre Monteux brings magisterial authority to these recordings. Of course, if his reading of Pétrouchka satisfied Stravinsky, I’m certainly not going to argue. Equally intelligent and adept is his reading of the Franck; in spite of the Chicago Symphony’s strongly Germanic temperament at the time (1961), the Symphony in D Minor comes across as quintessentially French. Monteux himself was one of the most respected conductors of the twentieth century, and, thanks to sound recording, is still, among classical music buffs, a household word.

This recording is part of a series of reissues of RCA Red Seal masterworks on “Super Audio CD” — CDs that contain up to six channels, of which, for these recordings, the engineers used two or three channels, depending on how the original tape was recorded. I have to say, although I am apparently technologically behind the times (being limited to 2-channel stereo), I have no quibbles with the sound quality.

OK — bottom line: these are classic renderings of two concert-hall staples, both very deserving of that status. In Monteux’s hands, the music is fresh, compelling, and well worth having on hand.

(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (orig. issued by RCA)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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