Franck: Symphony in D minor (CD review)

Also, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne; Hulda, Ballet allegorique. Christian Arming, Liege Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Fuga Libera FUG596.

The idea of the coupling on this album was to bring together a big, popular work with several other, less well-known pieces by the same composer. This is hardly a new concept, and numerous other record companies and musicians have already done it. It does, however, present two problems: First, it is not exactly conducive to selling a ton of discs to have unfamiliar titles on it. Second, the lesser-known works may simply demonstrate to listeners how much better the more-favored work is. There is a reason, after all, for certain pieces of art being more popular than others; they are usually better. Nevertheless, for most classical-music fans, the little ballet suite and symphonic poem that accompany Franck’s Symphony in D are welcome additions.

The big, popular work, the Symphony in D minor by French (Belgian-born) composer, pianist, and organist Cesar Franck (1822-1890), opens the show. Franck wrote it, his only symphony, in 1888, premiering it in Paris the next year, shortly before his death. It received a poor reception at the time, thanks largely to the musical politics of the day (leading French musicians disliked Franck’s blend of German and French musical traditions), but has obviously since become a mainstay of the classical repertoire.

One of the unusual features of the Symphony is that Franck wrote it in only three movements. The first movement, marked Lento - Allegro ma non troppo, begins, as Franck notes, slowly and builds momentum, though never too fast. Leading the Liege Royal Philharmonic, Maestro Christian Arming takes his time developing the themes in this movement, increasing the pace methodically and never making any sudden tempo changes. Instead, he makes Franck’s many shifts of key and tempo seem entirely normal and expected, he integrates them so smoothly. Indeed, if one were to be highly critical at all, one might say Arming was a little too refined, that Franck requires more gusto, more bravura. I don’t know; what we hear is persuasive enough, with adequate power when needed.

The second movement, an Allegretto, contains Franck’s famously fetching French horn melody. Franck himself described this section as resembling “an ancient procession,” and listeners through the years seem to have agreed. That’s the way Arming plays it, as a long, slow march, with a more enlivening theme developing toward the middle. Yet Arming makes it appear as a logical extension of the processional design.

The final movement, marked Allegro non troppo, takes us back in spirit to the start of the piece and sounds generally cheerful and exultant. Because Franck used a typically French cyclic style for the themes, we hear variants of the opening motif reoccurring throughout the work. Arming supplies plenty of energy here, without sounding frenzied or exaggerated. His interpretation stands up as cultured and well tempered to the end.

My preferred recordings for the Franck Symphony remain those of Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI), Pierre Monteux (RCA), Charles Dutoit (Decca), and Marek Janowski (Telarc). However, Maestro Arming makes a good showing of it, and one should not discount his recording in any way.

The first coupling on the disc, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (“What one hears on the mountains”) is an atmospheric tone poem, creating a mood rather than depicting any specific scenes. It is quite a lovely piece of music, portraying a lonely, isolated place somewhere high up in the mountains. Arming draws out this Man vs. Nature motif nicely, providing a quiet sense of desolation without letting the music become morbid or depressing.

The second coupling, Hulda, Ballet allegorique, is something we almost never hear on record or in the concert hall. It’s a little five-movement ballet suite from Franck’s long-forgotten opera Hulda, and the music comes as a treat. Under Arming, it is alternately lyrical and exciting, and always charming. The question is why more conductors haven’t recorded it.

A generous eighty-one minutes of playing time caps off a fine release.

Fuga Libera (meaning “free flight”), a label of Outhere Music, recorded the album at Salle Philharmonique, Liege, Belgium, in 2012. The sound in the Symphony is a model of natural audio reproduction. The orchestra stands before us at a moderate distance, the listener appearing to be perhaps twelve rows or so back. One still hears a wide stereo spread yet with a modicum of orchestral depth and good tonal balance. Bass is only modest, the highest notes seem a bit muted, and played too loudly there is a touch of forwardness in the lower treble. Midrange transparency also suffers slightly, while remaining realistic from this perspective. The overall effect is warm and lifelike, making a most pleasant listening experience. For whatever reason, maybe a change in miking, the accompanying items sound a tad more open and dynamic.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa