Marcel Proust and 'Le Temps Retrouvé' (Recovered Time) - The Eliot Quartet and Dimitry Ablogin play the César Franck Quartet in D major and Quintet in F minor

The Eliot Quartet

Maryana Osipova, Violin
Alexander Sachs, Violin
Dimitry Hahalin, Viola
Michael Preuss, Cello

Dimitry Ablogin, Piano

CD:  GENUIN  GEN 22784

And yet another CD spins on my player, one of many that regularly come my way. The title of this disc Le temps retrouvé  intrigued me as it irresistibly gave rise in my memory of reading long ago that great work À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust. The title became a semantic analogy of a madeleine dipped in tea. 

César Franck (1822-1890)

The emotional impact of the music and performance on this disc by the Eliot Quartet (named after T. S. Eliot and his poem Four Quartets, itself inspired by the late Beethoven quartets) and the distinguished Russian pianist Dimitry Ablogin. His exceptional performances have often been reviewed on this internet journal and his numerous international awards, such as the 10th International German Piano Award in 2021, and other renowned prizes, enthusiastically celebrated.

The disc contains an insightful pairing of the César Franck Quartet in D major and the Quintet in F minorI was reminded of the bizarre story of the fictional Vinteuil Septet and its fictional composer Vinteuil, both created in the novel. Proust maintained a profound, almost visceral interest in music and courageously confronted the near impossible task of rendering its meaning in words with eloquent poetic language.

Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps (1897)
Camille Pissaro (1830-1903)

Early in 1914 Proust had become deeply involved with the Beethoven 'last' quartets which were becoming increasingly known in the fashionable artistic circles of Paris. During the artistic revival of 1916, the renowned  Quatuor Poulet was formed. Proust used to listen to late Beethoven performed by the Quatuor Capet. He accomplished this in an oasis of curious privacy he created in the Salle Pleyel by erecting a painted screen which separated him from the bulk of the audience.

The great Proust biographer George D. Painter tells us an extraordinary anecdote after a performance of the Franck quartet by the Quatuor Capet in November 1916 at the Concert Rouge in the Rue de Tournon. The quartet's viola player, Amable Massis

'...was approached by a pale, black-moustached stranger in a fur coat, who asked if the four musicians would be willing to play Franck's work privately in his apartment. Massis agreed, and a few days later, at the Mephistophelean hour of midnight, Proust arrived by taxi to rouse the young man from his bed, despite the indignant resistance of his mother, and to claim his awful promise. Inside the taxi, while the chauffeur reassuringly winked and beamed, the alarmed Massis glimpsed a tureen of mashed potatoes, and a vast eiderdown beneath which Proust instantly crept.  Off they drove to collect the leader and first violin Victor Gentil and the 'cellist Louis Ruyssen, who made more fuss than anyone [...] Proust lay on his bed, with the manuscript of À la Recherche stacked and strewn on the floor beside him; the players propped their music on the furniture; and at one a.m., in the deep silence of the night and (Proust admitted) the superlative acoustics of the corklined bedroom, they performed the Franck Quartet in D major. "Would you do me the immense kindness of playing the whole work again?" Proust entreated. The weary players, fortified with a supper of champagne and fried potatoes served by Céleste, did as he asked; and Proust, with cries of delight and congratulation, paid them on the spot from a Chinese casket stuffed with fifty franc notes. Four taxis awaited them in the blacked-out street below; ...' (Marcel Proust. A biography George D. Painter, London 1965,  p.243)

Paris Taxis during the Great War

This Franck quartet of 1890 was the deepest source of the Vinteuil Septet, mention of which is often present in À la Recherche. It was César Franck's last and greatest work. In Proust we first hear of it performed as a quartet in the last matinée of the Princesse de Guermantes. The fictional composer Vinteuil shared many personal qualities of Franck. A shy yet noble personality, Franck's music lay somewhat in the shade of his role as organist of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris and the pedagogue known as Père Franck, the Conservatory professor and composer. He was an immortal musical genius yet shamefully neglected as a composer until after his death, dying a disappointed man. 

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Proust observed of his own fictional composer: 'Vinteuil symbolizes the great composer of César Franck's kind (genre Franck).' Yet the Septet itself is derived from many models and emerges in many forms in the novel. In its final superbly aesthetic embodiment, Proust places it as a central feature at the soirée where the Vedurins break with Baron de Charlus.

The sound of this ensemble has remarkable sonic cohesion, timbre and texture, a rare, unsettling and quite unaccustomed intensity. This riveting feeling immediately evolved from the passionate yearning of the heart contained in their presentation of the radiant opening lied of the quartet.

César Franck’s String Quartet in D major, his last great chamber work, was begun in early 1889 when the composer was sixty-six, not long before his premature death. The cab in which he was riding was struck by a horse-drawn trolley and subsequent later complications arose from pneumonia exacerbated by his notorious overwork. The composition was received with great enthusiasm by critics and public alike. His student and friend Vincent d’Indy realized that a degree of serious, possibly 'German' intellectual discipline and philosophy was being introduced into French music by Franck in this work, couched in the medium of a quartet. D'Indy had been surprised to see scores of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms quartets lying on Franck's piano.

The result was that both richness and high seriousness were contained within the composition. The Eliot Quartet understood this content and his transformation  perfectly. The conviction, passion, penetration and musical depth of their playing, the introduction of a Beethovenian atmosphere of gravitas and sense of exploration of a new musical landscapes, was clear in the exciting and engaging first movement marked Poco lento - Allegro. The glorious opening lied on the violin hovered above a mahogany string texture that expresses a sense of wrestling with a troubled and unsettled heart. Frank himself struggled with the composition of this movement. The Eliot Quartet painted a picture of the soulful and agitated transformation of lyricism into the reflective pain of love, a heart-rending expression of the opening lied emerged as a tremulous conclusion to the movement.

The Scherzo was accurately and lightly executed, cobwebs of expressiveness drifting in the wind, the recreation of a Mendelssohnian mood. There is a feeling of Mendelssohn and operatic arias too in the extensive third Larghetto movement. These lyrical, poignant pleas from the hidden chambers of the heart also gave Franck compositional difficulties to surmount. Vincent d'Indy writes how, visiting Franck at his apartment one occasion, he was accosted with a shout ‘I’ve found it!’ before they had even properly greeted each other.

The Finale: Allegro molto is constructed in traditional sonata form, once again reminiscent of Beethoven in the fierce, fiery physical urgency and poetic contrasts within its opening phrases. Storm clouds of devotion rush past, indications of a disturbed psyche. The movement is replete with musical reminiscences of what has already passed us by emotionally. The ardent concentration of the conclusion is surely unsurpassed in its posing of existential questions. The Eliot Quartet, undoubtedly deeply experienced in performance of classical Viennese chamber quartets, interpreted this remarkable Franck work with profound understanding.

The passionate Quintet in F minor (1879) also recorded on this disc as an inspired pairing with the quartet, was another fertile source for the Vinteuil Septet. It was reminiscent of the poignant phrases contained within the heart-rending Franck Piano and Violin Sonata in A major of 1886. Proust imagined the Septet pervaded by themes from the Vinteuil Sonata first described in Swann's Way, the 'little phrase' played by Odette and associated with his love for her but originally based partly on his hearing of the immortal Franck violin and piano sonata, quartet and quintet.

Marcel reminisces on the Septet:

'Whereas the sonata opened upon a lily-white pastoral dawn, dividing its fragile purity only to hover in the delicate yet compact entanglement of a rustic bower of honeysuckle against white geraniums, it was upon flat, unbroken surfaces like those of the sea on mornings that threaten storm, in the midst of an eerie silence in an infinite void, that this new work began, and it was into a rose-red daybreak that this unknown universe was drawn from the silence and the night to build up gradually before me.'

' the midst of this music [the Septet] that was so new to me I found myself in the very heart of the Vinteuil Sonata [...] again and again one phrase or another from the Sonata returned, but always changed, with different rhythm and harmony, the same and yet otherwise, as things return in one's own life.' 

(trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

28th January 2023 is the 120th anniversary of the death of composer
Augusta Holmès (1847-1903)
(Schott Music Group)

The quintet possesses an extraordinary anecdote associated with its first performance. César Franck’s wife, Félicité, disliked the piece intensely for musical and perhaps more sensual reasons. The composer's biographer Léon Vallas observes: ‘She detested it, had a horror of it; she raged in front of her husband’s pupils, accusing them as a body—a body that included the beautiful Augusta Holmès—of having driven him to compose such a work.’ Franck was certainly physically attracted to Augusta (she was described by Rimsky-Korsakov as ‘a very décolletée person’).

The contextual plot thickens considerably. As a young man, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns had also fallen for the charms of his pupil Mademoiselle Holmès, but his proposals were refused. Many young composers in love have suffered the similar fate of not having much of a financial horizon ahead. He was also not in the fullness of health. Saint-Saëns appears, it seems, to have interpreted the Franck quintet as a bold and subliminally powerful declaration of love.

He may have been morally outraged at this uninhibited avowal of love towards a female student from a married man and even further, a famous performer, professor of the organ and composer. Today there would have been little ambiguity at the forbidden nature of this declaration and the possibly suspected desire for imagined carnal consummation. Or Saint-Saëns may simply have been insanely jealous. Whatever the 'truth' of this fraught matter, after the first performance he immediately stormed off the platform leaving the manuscript with its personal dedication languishing on the music desk of the piano.

La Grande Odalisque (1814)
Jean August Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

When one listens to the work, erotic reflections are inescapable. A wild pendulum of dynamic passion swings between ppp and fff. The opening of the Molto moderato quasi lento - Allegro first movement sets the tone. There is an inflammatory contrast between the highly dramatic, defiant provocations presented by the strings with their  fierce dotted rhythms and the tender  expressive phrases on the piano. In this way I felt a remarkable symbiosis between the members of this remarkable ensemble, especially the expressive emotive responses from Dimitry Ablogin on the piano, a subtle rubato always evident which carried rich poetic implications of passionate lyricism. The constant modulations flooded over me as a breaking oceanic wave of committed yet unstable, sensual intensity.

The opening of the central movement, Lento con molto sentimento, again showed the remarkable expressive power and refined sensibility of Ablogin. One felt one was being taken unresisting into the inner palpitating heart by these groups of repeated expressive quavers played pp. This was an uncanny, other worldly musical quality. Here was the breathless motif of unrequited love, the palpitations one feels as the heart reaches out into the ethereal cold of impossibility, a fluctuating rhythmical motif of deepest feeling that continued throughout. He blended seamlessly, symbiotically with the rich string playing of this great quartet. Surely this was Schubertian in texture and full of emotional yearning. The cello counterpoint was immensely affecting. 

Ablogin's glorious yet understated, romantic and sensitive tone has clearly been cultivated through his deep involvement with period instruments, transferred in an inspired, effortless manner to the modern piano. After all he was a laureate of the National Chopin Institute 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw in 2018. He has also made an outstanding recording for the National Chopin Institute on Chopin's last Pleyel piano in the Chopin Museum in Warsaw . 

The nervous, neurotic string tremolos and dark piano chords that open the Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco final movement are given an ominous, haunting timbre and dark atmosphere by this ensemble. A return to the more threatening realties of human existence, passing shadows of what might have been after leaving the dream world of Venusberg.

How aware was Franck of the sensual chromaticisms of Wagner in Tristan I wonder ? A certain amorous desperation inhabits this agitated movement in the virtuoso piano part and accompanying string nervosity. The musically illogical modulations peppered themselves though unrelated keys touching the emotional life within the soul as few musical works. Sudden instantaneous, almost brutal bursts of passion, symphonically and unhesitatingly pursued after reflection lead to the almost savage, defiant conclusion.

I cannot recommend this recording highly enough, particularly with the creative literary context adding immeasurably to the outstanding musical dimension of performance and composition of these two great chamber works by César Franck. 

This wonderful recording was nominated for the Deutsche Schallplattenkritik and ICMA (International Classical Music Award).

Postscript of interest

In the recently published (ed. Simon Heffer, London 2021) Diaries 1918-1938 by Henry 'Chips' Channon (1897-1958) it is uniquely revealed that this acute observer and witty, ascerbic, rather superficial, yet highly entertaining describer of the English aristocratic classes at leisure knew Marcel Proust and read his work throughout his life especially whilst living in Paris in 1918. 

In the entry (p. 44-45) dated Saturday 16th November 1918, he recounts being invited to a party given by Hélène Chrissoveloni, Princesse Dimitry Soutzo. She was the daughter of a Greek banker and mistress of Paul Morand, a confidant of Proust. She would later marry Morand. The dinner was given in her luxurious apartment at the Ritz. Channon writes an extraordinarily frank, extensive and detailed description and assessment of Proust the man. Astonishingly, he found himself seated between the great writer and another, Jean Cocteau. He writes in part:

Their manners, usually so bad, were excellent tonight. They seemed to compete as to which could be the more engaging. I felt stupid between the two wittiest men in Europe. It was a Niagra of epigrams. Jean is a stylist and his conversation is full of fire and rapier thrusts at his friends. Proust is quieter but longer-winded and meticulous. His bloodshot eyes shine feverishly and he poured out ceaseless spite about the great. He knows the arms and quartering of every Duke in Europe. His black hair was tidily arranged but his linen was grubby, but [sic] the rich studs and links had been clumsily put in by dirty fingers.  [...] Proust has always been kind to me and I don't like to label him in the pages of my diary, so I will boil down to the minimum all the rumours about him: [...] Does the world know that he tips with 1,000 franc notes ?

Eight years later, he refers again to Proust: ‘...whom I knew more intimately than I have confided in this diary’.

Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon (1897-1958)
(Trustees of the Channon literary estate)


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