CÉSAR FRANCK – An Epic String Quartet

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck [1822-1890] was a French composer who wrote one string quartet, another member of the French One String Quartet Club, probably the earliest. Besides the Feldman SQ II, this would have to be one of the longest quartets I have reviewed, at forty-four minutes. I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. The work is in four movements and I am going to discuss a classic performance by the Juilliard String Quartet.

The work opens with a delicate violin melody, and strong chordal accompaniment. The melody is slowly developed, things are all very peaceful. A cello statement enters, with a reiteration of the opening melody and then begins to construct some variations of its own. The violin returns and picks up the mood a little, and the music moves forward. A pause brings about a change, with slight hints of a minor tonality. This is positively sumptuous. A return to a tempo is gentle but some increase in dynamics is forthcoming. The cello enters and delivers a strong melody, before combining with the violins in a positive passage. The violin now exhibits some yearning and the ensemble adjust to this mood. It’s only mild, but sounding very much of the Romantic era.

The cello comes to the fore again, and duets with a violin. Now the mood changes, becoming slightly tempestuous, with the cello and violin going at it. This soon returns to a peaceful mood and harmonic movement allows the cello and violin to craft strong melodies. Now the violins support a cello line with rhythmically intense, but gentle backing. The cello remains conspicuous, mostly leading the violins for a time. Now we have a recapitulation of the opening melody until the first violin breaks free and, eventually duets with the cello. A slow, soft chordal passage concludes. The dynamics stay in a small range for the whole of this movement. It is a lovely introduction and also, the longest movement of the work.

There is a mysterious, busy start to the second movement. A minor sound allows the ensemble, particularly the cello, to initiate tempo, but at a very soft dynamic. Now the cello is almost solo as it develops a longing mood for some time, with a very measured accompaniment. The violin is very strong here. A harmonic change occurs and the movement ends on four plucked cello notes.

The next movement opens in a slightly longing, stately manner and, again, the music is very measured. The cello enters for its nearly obligatory solo statement. It doesn’t work out that way, although it is a very strong voice in the ensemble. A new melody is presented, still melancholy but very rich in texture. The cello is again prominent, and contributes further to the melancholic nature. The violins return to take over, and they are just so sparse. Now some tension is provided but it doesn’t last for more than a few bars, before we are back to almost a stasis. As we approach the end, a lone violin fades.

The finale begins with a flourish but then settles into what has been the default feeling of the whole piece. The flurry is repeated several times and the music begins to blossom. These are the most positive sounds that I have heard so far. The flurry is reintroduced, and developed into a tempo. Some attractive melodies occur and there are some new rhythmic ideas to go with them. We now return to peace and violins meander through a series of gentle melodies. A brief dynamic passage ensues and then the status quo is resumed. Franck can certainly craft a fine melody, they just keep coming. The lamenting has receded and there is some melodic and chordal material presented. Occasionally the composer reverts to the earlier flurry and builds new melodies around this feeling. This passage is sustained for some time, until some gentle chordal passages ensue. The promise of propulsion is always hinted at, but rarely comes to fruition. A passage of slow melodies leads in a final flourish and the work concludes.

This is very beautiful, conservative music. Franck certainly knows how to write for the cello. There are many alluring cello passages throughout the work. It’s amazing that the whole quartet is in such a very limited dynamic range. The loudest note is probably the last one.

The review CD by the Juilliard Quartet, also contains Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1. It is on Amazon UK but not US. However there are hundreds of other versions on both sites, all paired with various works. The Juilliard disc is on Spotify and several versions of the quartet on YouTube.

Listenability: Magnificent, epic early Romantic quartet.

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