Roberto Benzi

Franck: Orchestral Music Vol. 1

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This is the first volume in a projected series of all the orchestral music by Cesar Franck (1822-1890). It won't comprise many discs, since Franck was not particularly prolific in this realm--not prolific, but quite vital, nevertheless.

The D Minor Symphony is the major work here, of course, and Benzi's reading of it is on the slow (but not lackluster) side. His tempos, and even to some extent his approach, are similar to the controversial studio performance from the 1950s by Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic. The latter ensemble has an edge over this solid but less suave orchestra from Arnhem. If comparison between these two recordings continues, it must be noted that the Naxos sound reproduction is vastly superior to the good mono effort Decca's engineers afforded the iconic Furtwangler. Moreover, one also notices that the latter actually sounds slower in the first movement, in spite of his marginally faster tempos (18:03 vs. 18:37). True, Furtwangler effectively harnesses a profound grimness, but does so at the expense of energy and thrust, of color and flexibility.

Benzi, on the other hand, shortchanges no aspects of the symphony's broad and colorful expressive palette to achieve his ends. On the whole he is a middle-of-the-roader, straddling emotional fences and steering clear of interpretive extremes, preferring clarity and straightforwardness to swashbuckling risk-taking. Perhaps he could be more imaginative and less earth-bound, but in the end you can't fault him for delivering a powerful and direct, if slightly heavy-handed, performance. The first movement comes across with plenty of muscle and darkness; the lyricism of the second sings, even if the tempo for the main theme could be a bit more animated; and the joie de vivre of the finale sparkles.

The two symphonic poems are substantial bonuses here: again the playing and interpretations are solid. The string section of this Dutch orchestra, by the way, sounds quite impressive throughout the disc; and if I gave the impression above that the group as a whole is a second-string assemblage, let me dispel that notion now: they play with spirit and polish and are decidedly superior to many better-known orchestras. I look forward to more recordings from them. Good notes. In sum, a fine issue.

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