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Symphonic Variations

5.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Audio CD, February 19, 2002
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Editorial Reviews

François-Joël Thiollier, piano - Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra - Roberto Benzi, direction
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Product Details

  • Audio CD (February 19, 2002)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Naxos
  • Run Time: 59 minutes
  • ASIN: B00005UO8G
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #258,652 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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By A Customer on February 22, 2002
Format: Audio CD
This disc will be a must-have for Franckophiles when they realize their composer wrote a full-fledged piano concerto (not one but two, the first being lost)! Fortunately, both performances and recording are much more than adequate, so even if you have current versions of "Variations Symphoniques" or "Les Djinns, you'll get fine alternate versions. In fact, I can't imagine a better performance of Franck's strange but memorable tone poem "Les Djinns," which has a big solo piano obbligato part. Francois-Joel Thiollier, whom I've enjoyed in other Naxos releases, plays with fervency and when needed, great delicacy here, and the Arnhem Philharmonic color Franck's typical orchestral writing in requisitely dark, almost funereal tones.

In the familiar "Symphonic Variations," Thiollier is no less solid. He may not be quite as characterful as or bring quite as much sparkle to the finale as my favorite performer in the piece, Jorge Bolet, does, but Thiollier's is a noble performance nonetheless, and certainly the more difficult variations in this difficult work pose no problems at all for his formidable technique.

So, then, what does the Piano Concerto No. 2--written in 1835, when Franck was all of 13(!)--sound like? The keyboard writing has much of Hummel about it (especially in the second movement). That makes sense, since Hummel (d. 1837) was the model for much of the piano music being turned out in the 1830s, including Chopin's. There is something of Chopin, too, in Franck's concerto, including the slightly awkward orchestration which like Chopin's is rather bottom heavy, given the mostly airy piano writing. But, wait: The orchestration also suggests the later Franck, recalling the special coloration Franck borrowed from the organ for his distinctive orchestral palette.
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Cesar Frank was groomed by his father to be a virtuoso pianist from an early age. Frank himself wanted to become a composer and when he was studying at the Conservatoire in Liege took lessons in composition and piano. He continued his studies in Paris until his father withdrew him as a student so he could begin a career as a performer.

This is where the Piano Concerto No. 2 comes in. Frank composed the work in 1835 when he was just 13 as a concert vehicle. This is a work of maturity for a teenager. The style is influenced by the Romanic piano concertos of the period. I do not detect a dominant influence and the music follows the conventional concerto structure. The music itself is engaging but not a profound statement. There is a long orchestra introduction in the first movement and the soloist enters with an engaging melody. The Adagio has a pastoral feel to the music with a lush melody explored by the soloist and orchestra. The Rondo finale begins, as do all of the movements, with an orchestral introduction. The soloist begins with a bold melody and there is a nice interplay between soloist and orchestra.

Frank did not make much of an impression as a pianist early on, resorted to teaching piano, and built a reputation as an organist. Frank's pupils encouraged him to compose again and he became friends with Vincent d'Indy. In 1884, he compose Les Djinns based on a Victor Hugo poem. Les Djinns is a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra. The Djinns are an army of vampire-like monsters that terrorize the poet who observes the dangerous creatures. The piece is evocative of the poem and is highly dramatic with a marvelous part for the piano. The Symphonic Variations was composed in the following year.
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This CD contains 3 different works by the Belgian/French composer Cesar Franck for piano and orchestra: Symphonic Variations; Symphonic Poem "Les Djinns" (The Genies); Piano Concerto N0 2. The piano in the first two pieces is played by Francois-Joel Thiollier, and by Martijn van den Hoek in the Concerto. The three works clearly demonstrate Franck's ability to explore and fully use the potential of both the piano and the orchestra for a balanced dialogue of different musical expressions. The Symphonic Variations is among his best-known and admired works. "Les Djinns" is an intriguing work, based on a poem by Victor Hugo, the famous French writer/poet. The music and the performance on this CD ensure an enjoyable listening experience.
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He wrote very little for piano but what he did was top notch. This record contains a transcription of one of his organ works to fill it out which I would have rather had played on an organ but that is a small matter. This cd will send you to piano music heaven.
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