One of this year’s more significant musical anniversaries is the bicentenary of the birth of César Franck. Born in what became the independent country of Belgium, Franck was one of the most influential figures in French music in the second half of the 19th century. Nowadays, outside Belgium and France, even his best known orchestral works, the Symphony in D minor and the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, crop up in concerts far less often than they once did, though his organ works at least are still regularly performed.

There are parts of his output that remain practically unknown. Later this year, Bru Zane is planning to record Hulda, the grandest of Franck’s four operas, none of which was staged in his lifetime. But the label’s first release marking the bicentenary is a survey of his 22 songs and six vocal duets. Spanning his entire career as a composer, they are settings of a wide range of verse, from what the wonderfully comprehensive essay in the sleeve notes describes as “a poem verging on silliness written by a provincial crank” to texts by celebrated authors such as Sully Prudhomme, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

There may be no great songs here to rival the masterpieces of Duparc, Fauré and Debussy, but all of them are elegant and refined. With a single exception, the solo numbers are performed by Tassis Christoyannis, whose flexible baritone wraps itself tactfully around each vocal line. The odd one out is one of the two settings that Franck made 10 years apart of Hugo’s S’il est un Charmant Gazon; that is sung by Véronique Gens, who also joins Christoyannis in carefully shaded performances of the set of six duets. Altogether it’s a quietly enjoyable collection.

This week’s other pick

Franck’s Complete Orchestral Works are brought together on a four-disc set from Fuga Libera; a second volume, containing all the chamber music, is due from the same label later this month. With performances by the orchestra from Franck’s birthplace, the Philharmonique Royal de Liège, under a variety of conductors including François-Xavier Roth and Gergely Madaras, the mixture of reissued and brand new recordings includes not only the Symphony, the Symphonic Variations (with Florian Noack as the soloist) and the five symphonic poems, but several early works for piano and orchestra, the ballet music from Hulda and an orchestration by his pupil Gabriel Pierné of Franck’s best known piano work, the Prelude, Choral and Fugue. The performances are always decent but, rarities apart, more engaging and insightful recordings of most of the works here can be found elsewhere.



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