FRANCK Symphonic Variations, Piano Works

★ Recommendation
A very distinguished trilogy of performances, and most impressively recorded - this is great piano playing.

Franck's solo keyboard music is very difficult to play, but in none of the usual virtuoso ways. Its beautifully moulded counterpoint needs immaculate clarity and subtle colouring and the scale of its gestures requires great breadth of sonority and dynamic, but purple rhetoric will not do: a grand but sober richness is called for. Jorge Bolet has all these qualities and the ability to make Franck's often-criticized piano writing sound perfectly idiomatic, indeed gloriously pianistic.

More important still, he has the concentration and the powerful control of structure to make a living, growing thing of the highly original form of both works. The piano sound of these performances is exceptionally beautiful (two examples: the wonderfully graded arpeggios in the Choral and the massively huge, but in no way opaque, final chord of the Fugue) but the magisterial demonstration that in these pieces Franck was effectively redefining the sonata is an even greater achievement; there is not an ugly sound here, nor a self-indulgent or irrelevant one either.

And the Symphonic Variations, Bolet and Chailly seem to suggest, are a no less bold redefinition of the concerto not the gallic sorbet laced with Lisztian liqueur that they sometimes appear. Theirs is an uncommonly thoughtful performance, generally not at all fast until the genuinely joyous conclusion (the preceding sobriety gives it a still greater ebullience by contrast). The overall control, again, is so firm that details and contrast of character between variations can be delicately pointed without any danger of diffuseness.

A very distinguished trilogy of performances, in short, and most impressively recorded, the bigness of the sound according well with the bigness of the readings, but with a no less accordant fineness of detail. No, come to think of it, 'distinguished' is a weasel word for such music-making: this is great piano playing.

-- Michael Oliver, Gramophone [9/1989]

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