Audio sample: Piano Sonata in C major, op. 40 no. 2: first movement
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Total time: 62 minutes 24 seconds
Piano Sonata in F major, op. 40 no. 1
1. Allegro (9’17”) 2. Allegretto (3’12”) 3. Allegro vivace (7’16”)
Piano Sonata in C major, op. 40 no. 2
4. Allegro risoluto (6’17”) 2. Andante sostenuto (7’31”) 3. Allegro vivace (5’18”)
Piano Sonata in G minor, op. 40 no. 3
7. Allegro (7’27”) 8. Allegretto (7’24”) 9. Allegretto (8’35”)
Our thanks to Andreas and Paul Feuchte for supplying scores of these rare works.
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 six piano sonatas forming op. 40 were published in Berlin in 1882 and dedicated to Franck’s son Richard. They show his mastery of the sonata at its zenith, and in all likelihood were written over a number of years preceding their publication, along with the ten other sonatas that form Franck’s known output in this form.
All three of these sonatas demonstrate Franck’s key qualities of proportion and command of structure, within which a wide emotional canvas is developed. The shades of Beethoven and Schubert hover near, with the latter’s influence felt particularly in the Allegretto finale of the G minor sonata, whose second subject is notably Schubertian in design. Other passages in that work’s first movement recall figures from Beethoven’s G major sonata, op. 31 no. 1, though in a darker and more serious context than that work’s playfulness.
Franck generally puts the burden of argument in these sonatas upon the first movement, with the central movement acting as a contrast to this intensity and thorough working-out of the sonata form. In two of the sonatas, there is no true slow movement, with scherzo-like foils taking that place, although in the G minor sonata there are lyrical episodes that give something of a sense of an extended cantabile. The finale is then left to promote resolution, generally taking on a more humorous, Haydn-like character and treating motifs that open up multiple developmental possibilities. The choice of sonata-rondo form is another indication of Franck’s concern with development as an integral part of design; not for him the freer approach of Chopin, for example. With Franck, a Viennese formality is a part of that sense of proportion that holds head and heart in balance.
His sonatas are the stronger and more impressive for this element of restraint within boundaries. The listener will be struck by Franck’s economy of gesture over what is often quite a large-scale movement; not a note is wasted or out of place, and throughout a terse inner logic first explores the potential of the material and then ties it together in a typical extended coda.
Contrast is also a major strength of Franck’s approach. His choice of varied motivic material is deft and at times, such as in the second subject of the G minor finale mentioned above, gives rise to genuinely memorable and beautiful writing. These lyrical passages are often deceptively technically demanding; Franck was clearly an exceptionally able pianist and he takes few prisoners in his demands for stamina and agility, not to mention complex accompaniment-figures in double-notes.
The ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” of 11 May 1883 reviewed the sonatas of op. 40 and op. 44 with the following words, “In all these works, a rich treasure of good German music is laid down. It is said of our time, that it brings forth no thorough Sonata, here we find a refutation of such a claim. Since Beethoven, only a few talented writers such as Ed. Franck have probably been called into existence. Almost all motives are created vividly before us and are well crafted. It is evident how versatile and diverse they are, especially from the fact that there is an underpinning of good counterpoint as if it were naturally present in the hands. Several of these [sonatas] deserve to be performed symphonically, because a dramatic element predominates in them. This Franck has always kept in mind, just as our classical piano masters treated their instruments, in so far as the piano is an orchestra.”