César Franck was a pivotal figure in French music towards the end of the 19th century. This was a golden period and many names emerged in the wake of Berlioz, notably Saint-Saens, Gounod, Massenet and Bizet. Whatever the merits of these admirable musicians, it was Franck who found a new strand of passionate romanticism, chromatic harmonies and a tendency to mix “the church with the whorehouse”. This opened the path for many French composers in the 20th century, including Roussel, Poulenc and even Messiaen.

Quatuor Danel
© Marco Borggreve

Debussy’s relationship with ‘Père Franck’, as he was known by his circle, was more complex. However, you can hear in his relatively early String Quartet in G minor the ghost of the older composer’s harmonies and feverish romanticism in the outer movements, mixed in with the modality which became the hallmark of the Debussy’s style. The Quatuor Danel were perfectly in tune with these roots at Wigmore Hall and produced a more openly passionate performance of the work than is the norm. The charm of the central movements didn’t pass them by, but in the outer movements they found a distinctive muscularity.

By the time Debussy composed his Danses sacrèe et profane in 1904, the overt influence of Franck had been integrated into his own musical language. These two deliciously limpid dances are usually played by a harp and string quintet, but Debussy also specified that a piano could also be played, as it was here. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was the alert pianist and the effect created was of lightness and grace.

Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor is one of the four great works in the form that were composed in the 19th century, the others being those by Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák. In the right performance, it has an overwhelming sweep. Motivated by unrequited love for one of his pupils, Augusta Holmès, it is radical both in its harmonies and its mood. It not an easy work to bring off in all its rampant glory. Many lukewarm performances try to tidy up its excesses and completely miss the passionate point. Not so here, as Bavouzet and the Danel seemed very keen to bring out every drop of fervour.

The mysterious opening exchanges between pianist and string quartet move into an extended passage of dramatic themes and increasing tension. The inexorable progress of this passage was presented in all its intense glory. Neither Bavouzet nor the quartet were afraid to sound harsh and with this approach they succeeded brilliantly. An almost sexual frisson was created as intended, which could have been the reason why it offended so many people when first performed in 1880. In the slow movement, the tension was maintained, with a brooding sense of the passion ready to erupt again. Bavouzet was able to maintain a line here without ever making the gentler passages sound decorative. The finale was fiery throughout. Only the brief appearance of the love theme, which appears several times throughout the piece, gave a tiny moment of relaxation. This was a truly committed five-star performance of a work that is played too rarely and is often misunderstood by performers and audience alike.