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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER, G.: Piano Quartet / FRANCK, C.: Piano Quintet (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 5)
“Schönberg, insisting on the legitimate interest that attaches to every aspect of the life and person of a great man, once said he would have liked to see how Mahler tied his tie. It is in something of that spirit that one approaches the earliest Mahler work to have come down to us, the single movement for piano quartet in A minor (apparently the first movement of a projected four-movement opus), which he wrote while a student at the Vienna Conservatory, probably late in 1876 when he was 16 years old. As Mahler put it in 1893 “in the end I sent it to Moscow for a competition and it got lost”. But in fact it was found among the effects of his widow Alma after her death in 1964, in a folder labelled “early compositions”…
Weighty, four-square, thickly-scored, discursive, impassioned, Franck’s quintet seems to transgress against every one of what one usually thinks of as the conventional “Gallic” virtues: deftness, lightness of texture, epigrammaticism, objectivity, elegance, wit… Even such a quintessentially “Gallic” composer as Debussy could respond to Franck’s idealism and purity of aims, despite the gulf that separated their artistic temperaments. “César Franck is always a worshipper of music”, he wrote. “No power on earth can induce him to interrupt a passage he considers just and necessary; however long it is, it must be gone through. This is the hallmark of an imagination so selfless as to check its very sobs until it has first tested their genuineness.” What redeemed Franck for Debussy, then, was the intense, irresistible sincerity that has won his late work a devoted audience now for over a century. The quintet, the earliest of Franck’s works to have joined the enduring concert repertoire, bears it the most eloquent of testimonies.”
– Richard Taruskin / Columbia University 1981
The FINNADAR RECORDINGS of IDIL BIRET
Idil Biret started recording for the Finnadar in 1972, following a proposal from Ilhan Mimaroglu. At the time Mimaroglu, a composer of electronic music, was working as a producer for Atlantic Records in New York, mostly with its co-founder Nasuhi Ertegün. Finnadar label was founded as a subsidiary of Atlantic, one of the few imprints within the major-label corporate structure devoted wholly to contemporary music (1). In a rare interview he gave in 2001, Ilhan Mimaroglu described his goal for founding Finnadar records:
It was in the early seventies that I started Finnadar Records with an LP of my electronic music and continued throughout the years, primarily with recordings of contemporary compositions, with a view to also offer to the public performers who should be better known, among which Turkish pianists Idil Biret and Meral Güneyman.(2)
During an association with Idil Biret that lasted over ten years nine LPs were issued by Finnadar with recordings of many contemporary works including those by Boulez, Berg, Webern, Miaskovsky, Boucourechliev as well as some classical works by Beethoven, Chopin and others (see discography below). The recordings received great critical acclaim in the US and Europe and the Boulez Sonata no.2 was selected as the “Record of the Month” by Stereo Review magazine. Biret later recorded all three Boulez Piano Sonatas for Naxos which received a Diapason d’Or of the year 1995 in France and sold 30.000 copies within six months of its release. The recording of the Berlioz/Liszt Symphonie Fantastique received special attention on both sides of the Atlantic as it was one of the first forays into recording and performing piano transcriptions—a widely practiced art in 19th century that had fallen out of favour in the 20th century. Idil Biret performed the Berlioz/Liszt work at recitals all over the world including New York, London, Paris, Munich, Milan and helped establish respect for the performance of piano transcriptions once again. On the base of these performances and the Finnadar recording she then went on to record for EMI the complete symphonies of Beethoven in the piano transcriptions by Liszt and performed all the nine symphonies in four recitals at the Montpellier Festival (broadcast live by Radio France Musique) during the Liszt Centennial in 1986.
Sadly, the adventurous label Finnadar did not last long and was folded up in the early 1980s. In a brief note, the ex-RCA executive Jack M. Einhorn explains some of the reasons for the early demise of Finnadar:
I first became aware of Idil Biret from her outstanding recordings for Ilhan Mimaroglu’s Finnadar label - an imprint that went ill-distributed by the powers-that-be at then-Warner Distribution (Finnadar was affiliated with Atlantic Records in the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic triumvirate). Her recordings of piano works by Boucourechliev, Miaskovsky, and Berlioz (by way of Liszt) made a strong impression, one that has not faded from this listener’s memory. Warner Distribution’s bread and butter in the late 1970s and 1980s was rock and pop and the Warner sales force had a genuinely bad attitude toward classical music, jazz and world music. The salespeople were somewhat surprised that Nonesuch was selling so strongly (could it have been the fact that it was a budget label with a broad but genuinely interesting repertoire base and a great promotional team at Elektra?), and used the false comparison between Nonesuch (budget) and Finnadar (a bargain at full price in my less-than-humble opinion) to marginalize the latter label, which only found a foothold in Tower, a few chain stores, and indy stores with big Classical selections - that is, if the pop-brained salesperson even bothered to call the releases to the attention of the Classics buyer.
Thank God for Klaus Heymann who has given terrific artists like Idil Biret the exposure that they truly merit. (3)
Ahmet Ertegün gave the copyrights of all her Finnadar LPs (then owned by Warner/Atlantic) to Idil Biret shortly before he passed away. Idil Biret would like to express her gratitude to the Ertegün family and to Ilhan and Güngör Mimaroglu for making possible the release of her early Finnadar recordings on the Idil Biret Archive label.
Şefik B. Yüksel
(1) Dave Lewis, All Music Guide
(2) Interview with Mehmet Dede in New York, 2001
(3) From a letter to Sefik B. Yüksel by Jack M. Einhorn, 27 May 2000
Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911) Quartet for Piano and Strings
César FRANCK (1822–1890) Quintet for Piano and Strings
Schoenberg, insisting on the legitimate interest that attaches to every aspect of the life and person of a great man, once said he would have liked to see how Mahler tied his tie. It is in something of that spirit that one approaches the earliest Mahler work to have come down to us, the single movement for piano quartet in A minor (apparently the first movement of a projected four-movement opus), which he wrote while a student at the Vienna Conservatory, probably late in 1876 when he was sixteen years old. We know of other works dating from this period or even earlier—a quartet for two violins, viola and piano; a prize-winning movement for piano quintet; the legendary four “youth symphonies”—by reputation only; the music is lost. The one work we do have, however, was recalled by Mahler (in a conversation with Nathalie Bauer-Lechner in 1893) to have been the best of the lot. It “excited a good deal of enthusiasm”, and it was performed under prestigious circumstances: the chamber music soirées held at the home of Theodor Billroth, an eminent Viennese surgeon and amateur violinist, who was a close friend and musical confidant of Hanslick and Brahms. The manuscript bears the stamp of the music publisher Theodor Rattig, who issued Mahler’s piano-duet arrangement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony sometime between 1878 and 1886 (this was Mahler’s first publication). Rattig did not print the quartet though, and as Mahler put it in 1893 “in the end I sent it to Moscow for a competition and it got lost”. But in fact it was found among the effects of his widow Alma after her death in 1964, in a folder labelled “early compositions”. It was performed (in an edition prepared by Dika Newlin) at a concert in New York that year, but was not published until 1973, when the Hamburg firm of Sikorski brought it out in an edition by Peter Ruzicka. Despite the encouraging attention this single movement was shown, it is likely that it (plus the 24-bar sketch for a scherzo in G minor found with it in Alma Mahler’s folder) was all Mahler ever completed of the quartet. During his Conservatory years he rarely if ever finished anything. As he confessed to Bauer-Lechner: “It was not only that I was impatient to begin a new piece, but rather that before I finished a work it no longer challenged or interested me, as I had gone beyond it. But who at the time could know whether my trouble was not a lack of ability or of the power to persevere?”
Mahler was under no illusions as to the quality of his earliest work. On another occasion he complained to the same interlocutor that in his Conservatory days he lacked originality, that his ideas all came to him “from another source”. That is certainly true of the quartet movement recorded here. The main theme will surely remind Wagnerians of Fasolt and Fafner (one wonders how it went over at Billroth’s!), although the highly concentrated if rather unimaginative and “determined” working out is, just as one would expect from a Vienna Conservatory student, highly indebted to Brahms. Along the way, any number of composers pass in review; the listener (like Rossini in his famous anecdote) will find himself tipping his hat to many old friends, perhaps most prominently among them Chopin (in the cut of the themes) and Schubert (in some of the modulations). But the most striking aspect of the youthful Mahler’s eclecticism is the unexpectedly strong Slavic tinge, echoes of Dvořák and even Glinka, which forcibly remind us of Mahler’s Bohemian origins.
As to the overall shape and design of the piece, it is an academic sonata-allegro with a few unconventional touches. It is hard to decide whether to regard these last as evidence of latent individuality or of inexperience. The huge arresting tonic pedal near the end of the development (over which a sequential pattern of motives is superimposed) perhaps deserves the latter explanation. On the other hand, the ambiguous status of the opening slow section (is it a conventional “introduction” or is it in fact the first theme, with the apparent fast “first theme” to be then construed as a bridge?) is “original” in its somewhat awkward way. But what are we to make of the gypsy fiddler who so peremptorily interrupts the proceedings right before the coda with a cadenza marked “ungemein rubato u. Leidenschaftlich” (uncommonly rubato and passionate), full of wild chromatic appoggiaturas completely at variance with the tamely “classical” harmonic language of the piece? Here at last we have a glimpse of the real Mahler, the Mahler-to-be, with his glaring stylistic incongruities and his deliberate “Trivialitäten”. But what in the hands of the mature genius gives rise to the haunting, disquieting irony that is his most distinctive trait, seems but a disarming lapse in the fist of the child, his father.
The Quintet in F minor for piano and strings (1879) was the first of three important chamber works—the others being the Violin Sonata (1886) and the String Quartet (1889)—which date from the remarkable late flowering of César Franck’s enigmatic genius. When he wrote it he was 59 years old, and had not written a major piece of chamber music since the age of 21. Like its companions, the quintet was first performed—indeed, was composed to be performed—at the concerts of the Société Nationale de Musique, an organisation founded by Camille Saint-Saëns during the most dismal days of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, with the avowed aim of promoting ARS GALLICA, as its upper case motto proclaimed, a specifically French art of specifically instrumental music of high seriousness and idealism. The founding of the Société was not merely the nationalistic reaction it has often been made out to be, but also a protest against the cynical frivolity of musical life in the second Empire, eternally symbolised by the name Offenbach. Saint-Saëns was pianist at the first performance of Franck’s quintet (17 January 1880), and the work was dedicated to him, but according to a scurrilous price of gossip that went around Paris at the time, and was later committed to paper by Franck’s worshipful disciple Vincent d’Indy, Saint-Saëns refused the proffered gift of the manuscript, thereby implying his fundamental lack of artistic sympathy with the piece.
And indeed that lack of sympathy on the part of Saint-Saëns is not so hard to understand, for Franck’s quintet takes seriousness and idealism to extremes and is, moreover, suffused with a solid earnestness of purpose and weightiness of facture that are perhaps more aptly to be described by the word Germanic than by Gallica. But then, where else but Germany was a musician intent upon creating imposing works of “absolute music” to turn for a model in the latter nineteenth century? Franck’s models were not to be found in the mainstream of German classical chamber music, though. They were, significantly, composers of theatrical and orchestral music—the Wagner of Tristan (who cast his shadow over French music at least as far as Pelléas), and the Liszt of the symphonic poems and the Faust-Symphonie. From the former Franck learned his slithery effects of chromatic harmony (though his characteristic manner of oscillating between two Tristanesque chords was uniquely his), and the obsessive (unconscious) quotations of the opening of the Tristan prelude that one finds in so many of his works (in the quintet it can be heard most clearly in the second movement, bars 66–69).
From Liszt, Franck learned many fundamental lessons in modern tonal relations and formal design. The first of these involved the frequent replacement of the classical tonal progression based on the “cycle of fifths” by progressions based on the interval of the third. These operate in Franck’s quintet on all levels, from that of the local cadence (e.g. at the end of the second movement), to that of tonal “regions” (i.e. the way the subordinate themes tend to be cast in keys related to the main key of the movement along a cycle of thirds), to that of the overall plan (the three movements of the quintet are in the keys of F minor, A minor and F major respectively).
The other Lisztian lesson involved the dramatic recurrence of themes, a device borrowed from the opera by way of such notably “operatic” instrumental antecedents as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Franck elevated this device into a principle his disciples dubbed “cyclic form”, a phrase by now irrevocably wedded to his name. The cyclic principle operates in the quintet on two levels. A single theme—and an especially “Franckish” one at that in its broadly syncopated rhythm—plays a role in all three movements: as subordinate theme of the sonata-form first movement (first heard at bar 124), as bridge after the mid-section of the beautiful nocturne—or barcarolle-like second movement (bar 58), and as coda of the grandly “symphonic” finale (bar 428). In addition, the countermelody marked “soft but dramatic”, first heard in bar 20 of the second movement, returns to play a huge role as subordinate theme in the finale, and is the vehicle by which Franck builds up the incandescent climax of that movement (bars 279 and seq.), one that seems for a moment to turn the chamber ensemble into a blazing orchestra. For cyclicity was not a “merely” musical device; it was a dramaturgical one, in which themes were to be viewed and treated like characters in the theatre. And all of Franck’s characters seem to belong to one family, for it was another aspect of Franckian cyclicity (comparable to Liszt’s device of “thematic transformation”) to derive all the themes in large-scale works from a small body of shared intervallic cells, or motives. Thus, it was thought, could a lengthy and complex composition achieve the utmost in formal unity and immediacy of impression.
Weighty, four-square, thickly-scored, discursive, impassioned, Franck’s quintet seems to transgress against every one of what one usually thinks of as the conventional “Gallic” virtues: deftness, lightness of texture, epigrammaticism, objectivity, elegance, wit. No wonder Saint-Saëns remained cold to it. But many French musicians of the late nineteenth century thought otherwise, dismissed Saint-Saëns and all he stood for as “Latin superficiality”, and grouped themselves around Franck as around a sage. Besides d’Indy, they included Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Guy Ropartz, and the tragically short-lived Guillaume Lekeu. On them, Franck’s influence was not just that of a musical mentor, but that of a spiritual guide. And even such a quintessentially “Gallic” composer as Debussy could respond to Franck’s idealism and purity of aims, despite the gulf that separated their artistic temperaments. “César Franck is always a worshipper of music”, he wrote. “No power on earth can induce him to interrupt a passage he considers just and necessary; however long it is, it must be gone through. This is the hallmark of an imagination so selfless as to check its very sobs until it has first tested their genuineness.” What redeemed Franck for Debussy, then, was the intense, irresistible sincerity that has won his late work a devoted audience now for over a century. The quintet, the earliest of Franck’s works to have joined the enduring concert repertoire, bears it the most eloquent of testimonies.
(Music notes are from the original LP, Finnadar SR 9035)
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