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Jonas Alber conducts the Staatsorchester Braunschweig in Franck’s D Minor Symphony—a Podcast.

Jonas Alber, Conductor
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Jonas Alber, Conductor
Jonas Alber, Conductor

Some months ago an email discussion arose among our writers and friends about César Franck’s D Minor Symphony. Steven Kruger, who heard the Chicago Symphony play the work under Riccardo Muti on a West Coast tour in February and reviewed the concert here, was surprised to learn from Alex Ross’s review of their New York series in October (The New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2012) that the old warhorse, once performed at Carnegie Hall seven or eight times in a season, had become a rarity, played there only four times since 1988. Kruger observed: “I think senior conductors serve a function in recycling music that was popular forty-five years ago—in the same way that fashion does this. I’ve always noticed that sixty-five-year-olds in positions of power in the fashion industry see to it, perhaps unconsciously, that the styles they saw at age twenty make a return appearance. It is no accident that the women today look the way they did when I was 20. Somebody my age on “Seventh Avenue” is seeing to it that they do. Similarly, I’m delighted to have Muti bring us back to the pieces of our youth…” Ross quoted Muti, who said, “This fantastic symphony by Franck, it was played everywhere in Italy when I was young. Then, suddenly, it vanished. Why is this?”

Riccardo Muti has in part made his name by making audience reconsider forgotten masterworks. It occurred to me that it would be intriguing to ask a rather different kind of conductor, the superb Jonas Alber, who specializes in contemporary music and in bringing the insight of the new to the most established classics, what he thinks of the Franck Symphony, of which he has made an outstanding recording (unfortunately out-of-print). I thought this would be an excellent occasion to offer Maestro Alber’s performance, recorded live in concert, as a holiday treat for our readers, along with his views of the symphony and how it should be performed.

César Francks d-Moll Sinfonie hat mich immer in besonderem Maaß fasziniert, weil sie den scheinbar unüberwindbaren Gegensatz zwischen deutscher und „romanischer“ Sinfonik auf glücklichste Weise überwindet. Man vergleiche nur einmal die langsame Einleitung des ersten Satzes etwa, das grübelnde erste Motiv, das sogleich an Wotans Hadern mit dem Schicksal erinnert, mit dem schwelgerischen, fast schon an Chabrier erinnernden Seitenthema des Finales.

Besonders reizvoll erscheint mir der zyklische Aufbau der Sinfonie, die vollständige Durchdringung des Finales mit dem gesamten thematischen Material der ersten beiden Sätze. In dieser Weise kennen wir das im deutschen Repertoire nur aus der 4. Sinfonie Robert Schumanns. Brahms deutet diese Kompositionstechnik am Ende seiner 3. Sinfonie nur an, Bruckner verwendet thematisches Material seiner ersten Sätze gern für affirmative, festliche Schlussbildungen seiner Finali. Francks Sinfonie geht weit darüber hinaus und lässt sich hierin eigentlich nur mit Dvoráks „Neuer Welt“ oder Tschaikowskys 5. Sinfonie vergleichen.

Für den Dirigenten besonders zu beachten scheint mir die klangliche Heterogenität des Werks. Der dunkle, Wagner-samtige Klang der langsamen Einleitung etwa verlangt einen dichten, „körperlichen“ Streicherklang, im Allegro dann das von Bruckner gerne mit „markig“ umschriebene Streicherspiel. Dagegen gehalten das südländisch helle, fast gleißende Strahlen der Gesanglinien im Finale. Wichtig hierfür beispielsweise ein (auch im forte) schlanker Klang der Trompeten und Pistons. Und natürlich ist das Englischhornsolo im zweiten Satz ein einzigartiges Ereignis in der Geschichte der sinfonischen Instrumentation!

Was die Wahl der Tempi betrifft, so scheint mir das angebracht, was für auch für die deutsche Spätromantik gilt: Extreme sind zu vermeiden, im Zweifelsfall kommt ein ruhigerer Zugang Francks Musik am nächsten.

César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor has always especially fascinated me, because it overcomes the apparently invincible opposition between German and Gallic symphonic writing in the most fortunate way. Just compare the slow introduction of the first movement, the brooding first subject, which immediately recalls Wotan’s quarrel with fate, with the festive secondary theme of the Finale, which almost reminds one of Chabrier.

The cyclical structure of the symphony seems especially appealing to me, the complete interpenetration of the Finale with the entire thematic material of the first two movements. In this way we find that in the German repertoire only in the Fourth Symphony of Robert Schumann. Brahms only alludes to this compositional technique at the end of his Third Symphony. Bruckner likes to use thematic material from his first movements for the affirmative, ceremonial conclusions of his finales. Franck’s symphony goes far beyond that and in this actually allows comparison only with Dvoráks “New World” or Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

For the conductor, I think the diversity of timbre in the work requires special attention. The dark, velvety, Wagnerian sound of the slow introduction demands something like a thick, “physical” string tone–in the Allegro, therefore, the string playing that Bruckner liked to describe as “markig” (= “meaty,” lit. “marrowy”). On the other hand the southern, bright, almost glittering radiance of the melodic lines in the Finale are totally different. For this a lean sound from the trumpets and cornets is important—also in the forte passages). And of course the English horn solo in the second movement is a unique event in the history of symphonic instrumentation!

As far as the choice of tempi are concerned, I think that what works for German late Romanticism is appropriate: extremes are to be avoided; when in doubt, a relaxed approach to Franck’s music seems natural. [Translation by the Editor]

César Franck, Symphony in D Minor
Staatsorchester Braunschweig,
Jonas Alber conductor
Live concert at the Stadtshalle Braunschweig, 19/20 October 2003
Released by Coviello Classics, Darmstadt

MP3:

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Franck Symphony in D Minor — Ogg Vorbis format (recommended). Reload if the file does not immediately load in your browser. Download Xiph to play with QuickTime, or download the file and play with Decibel, Cog, or VLC.

Jonas Alber

About Jonas Alber

Jonas Alber has been called an unparalleled magician of sound, and has been praised for a maturity that seems unimaginable for such a young conductor. When he was appointed General Music Director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig in 1998, he became the youngest conductor in Germany to hold such a post. Today he is much in demand as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras and opera companies in every part of the globe.

As a symphonic guest conductor, Jonas Alber has led many renowned orchestras. In Germany, these have included the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Cologne WDR Symphony, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, the Leipzig MDR Symphony, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hamburg Symphony and the Bochum Symphony. He has also conducted the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria in Vienna, the Symphony Orchestra of St. Gallen, the Brussels Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de Belgique, the Residentie Orkest of The Hague, the City of Birmingham Symphony, the Iceland Symphony, the Gran Canaria Philharmonic, the Zagreb Philharmonic, the Armenian Philharmonic, the Cape Philharmonic, and the Auckland Philharmonia.

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