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Few works have prompted greater speculation and prurience than Franck’s Piano Quintet. Even Liszt was shocked by its erotic intensity and daunting piano part that stepped outside the bounds of chamber music propriety. Saint-Saëns, the Quintet’s dedicatee and its first performer, walked off the stage leaving the score behind in a show of contempt, while Franck’s wife, sensing that music of such inflammatory passion was inspired by someone other than herself, made her detestation public.

The answer comes in the person of Augusta Holmes, a young Irish pupil described by Rimsky-Korsakov as ‘a very décolleté sort of person.’ Aged 56 Franck descended from his organ loft and, leaving behind his image as the ‘pater seraphicas’, fell hopelessly in love. As a married man the situation was impossible; and the plot thickens when his advances were rejected by Miss Holmes. The result is music which takes you on a journey into an emotional inferno.

This, among many qualities, is what makes Marc-Andre Hamelin’s and the Takács’ performance a triumph beyond any other recording (fired at an even higher temperature than Clifford Curzon’s legendary disc). Understatement plays no part in their incendiary attack (try the opening cry of despair and the attempted conciliatory reply). Hamelin’s unquenchable mastery reminds you that it is part of a discography unique in the history of piano recordings. The glorious Takács find a related vehemence in the Debussy Quartet. In the Andantino, you get the feeling that despite an elegiac rather than violent tone, Franck and Debussy were perhaps not so far apart. This is a superb record, of rare musical integrity and commitment.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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