New CD

A new CD has been released by Romantic Discoveries Recordings.

Piano Sonatas of Eduard Franck (1817-93)
John Kersey, piano

Piano Sonata in E flat major, op 40 no 4. Piano Sonata in F major, op 40 no 5. Piano Sonata in E minor, op 44 no 2

Eduard Franck was born in Silesia into a wealthy and cultured family that numbered Mendelssohn and Wagner among its acquaintances. He studied with Mendelssohn as a private student and then began a long career as a concert pianist and teacher. He was regarded as one of the leading pianists of his day and also as an outstanding teacher.

Franck was not forthcoming about his compositions, and failed to publish many of them until late in life. He was a perfectionist and would not release a work until he was absolutely satisfied that it met his standards. Yet what survives is extremely high in quality. Writing of his chamber music, Wilhelm Altmann said, “This excellent composer does not deserve the neglect with which he has been treated. He had a mastery of form and a lively imagination which is clearly reflected in the fine and attractive ideas one finds in his works.”

The three Piano Sonatas on this disc demonstrate Franck’s varied approach to the genre. The E flat major sonata is outgoing and virtuosic, recalling both Beethoven and Haydn and the triumphant associations of the E flat major tonality. The opening movements have elements of Mendelssohn’s virtuoso piano style but are generally more emotionally charged, with an effective contrast between the first and second subjects in both movements. Indeed, this attention to formal contrast and finely-worked transition passages is entirely characteristic of Franck’s writing.

The elaborate slow movement is an extremely fine example of Franck’s mastery of extended structure. Indeed, the heart of the argument of Franck’s sonatas is frequently to be found in their slow movements, which show a level of inspiration, extension and variety within an essentially episodic format that stands with the finest of Early Romantic models. Mendelssohn is an obvious melodic reference, but Franck goes further in his exploitation of subtle and daring harmonic shifts – a device that was to become something of a trademark.

Where the E flat major sonata is predominantly music of extroversion, the canvas of the F major sonata is more intimate, recalling Beethoven’s experimental use of that key in his sonatas op 10 no 2 and op 54. Like op 54, the sonata begins with a movement with some characteristics of a minuet, though for Franck this is never more than a stylistic allusion as the work quickly develops momentum and transcends the formality of its opening motif.

The slow movement here is of the sort that Mendelssohn would have titled Venetian Gondola Song; its calm progress arrested by shifts in harmony and mood that disorient the richness of the opening material. Where the first movement had been relatively straightforward in utterance, the slow movement again for Franck is the means of introducing greater musical and emotional complexity within the sonata structure.

The Presto finale is based on a motif that could have come directly from the pen of late Haydn, and rests upon the contrast between two main groups in the major and relative minor. These develop somewhat through harmonic transformation although the mood is rarely concerned with deep matters, and a virtuosic coda ends the sonata on an exultant note.

The E minor sonata is the most ambitious of those included here. The intense opening movement is a high Romantic essay in tension and adventure, with a hymn-like second subject offering a prayerful calm in contrast. This movement shows Francks exploitation of piano technique at its most dramatic, though his “orchestral” writing is generally subtle and controlled even when expressing menace.

Such a tone-picture could only be succeeded by a lighter foil, and the scherzo that follows is playful and graceful in style, though still with an underlying anxiety and uncertainty, dispelled in part by the sustained Schubertian trio in the tonic major.

Perhaps recalling the outline of Beethoven’s op 109, Franck decides to end the sonata with a set of extended variations on a slow theme somewhat akin to that chosen by Schubert for his variations in the Sonata in A minor, D845. These begin in the unexpected key of C major and pass through a variety of textures before arriving at an elaborate and triumphant conclusion, which then dies away into nothing.