This Naxos disc, Franck: String Quartet in D major, String Quintet in F minor, revisits a combination of experienced and beloved artists that served Naxos well on a previous outing in chamber works of Gabriel Fauré, Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, and the Fine Arts Quartet. In pedigree -- though not in membership at the time of recording -- the Fine Arts' legacy goes back to 1946, and Ortiz's since at least 1977 when she made her first recordings for EMI under the aegis of Vladimir Ashkenazy. Although it already has the Franck Piano Quintet in its catalog, paired with Chausson's C minor String Quartet, for some reason Naxos has never essayed Franck's one string quartet, written at the very end of his life and counting as a major French contribution to nineteenth century chamber literature. This outing makes a very effective case for both works; while Ortiz and the Fine Arts are far from being the first to combine these two strongly compatible Franck pieces on disc, they concentrate on keeping the level of quality of musicianship very high.
There was a time when both of these pieces were considered outlandish and shocking; beloved mainly by Franck's close-knit circle of friends and colleagues, the Piano Quintet in particular was the subject of considerable critical and public outcry that went as far as Franck's own spouse, who did not conceal her outright hatred of it, along with a number of her husband's other works. In retrospect, it appears that the quintet, completed in 1879, was likely the first European chamber masterwork conceived in an entirely post-romantic style, the French Franck having the scoop by a decade or more on Austrian and German composers who would come to dominate the late romantic. Compared to the quartets composed by Debussy and Ravel -- written 15 to 25 years later -- it may be hard for twenty-first century listeners to understand what was thought so revolutionary and difficult about Franck's chamber music. Nevertheless, neither work yields its charms easily; although entirely tonal, Franck's slippery chromaticism and long-pitched development schemes require patience and concentration, particularly in comparison to his more forthright and immediate Sonata for violin and piano in A major. So whether one is attracted to either or both Franck's Piano Quintet in D major and quartet may be a matter of taste, but these are seminally important late romantic works, and the performance they get from these dedicated and skilled players commends itself. Naxos' recording is a little quiet, but is clear and well-balanced.