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This proved prophetic. Franck was delighted and credited his success to Diémer’s brilliant playing—sec, léger, and articulated with lightning precision—which he promised to reward with ‘a little something’. Good to his word, Franck dedicated his orchestration of the Variations symphoniques to Diémer. He began work in the summer of 1885, and completed it on 12th December. In his ultimate, old master phase, Franck transformed everything he touched. The orchestral highlighting of pianistic virtuosity—heard in such works of his youth as the Variations brillantes sur l’air du Pré aux clercs (1834) or the Variations brillantes sur le ronde favorite de Gustave III (1834–35)—or the Lisztian heroics of the soloist locked in combat with the orchestra are left behind in the Variations symphoniques in favour of the deft dovetailing of piano and orchestra. This use of the piano as a concertante instrument would be taken up by Vincent d’Indy in his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (1886) and in turn, be adopted as far afield as Ferruccio Busoni’s massive five-movement Piano Concerto (1904).
The strings open with a menacing dotted figure in unison, answered by the piano with a plaintively drooping phrase whose dialogue gives way to a second theme introduced by pizzicato woodwinds and strings. An appassionato development leads shortly to six seamless variations on the second theme through which the piano decorates, comments, alludes, and accompanies, as the mood shifts from triumphant assertion to mystical absorption and languishing, muted sighs. A sudden trill in both hands, two octaves apart, prompts the orchestra to begin the extensive, rhapsodic finale in which the thematic material of the preceding is wrought to an incandescent apotheosis. Without doubt, the irresistible, surefire breeziness of this finish has insured the Variations symphoniques first place in popularity among Franck’s works.
Curiously, the premiere, at the annual orchestral concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, May 1, 1886, with Diémer at the piano, passed almost without mention. At the second performance, an all-Franck concert on January 30 of the following year—again featuring Diémer—the surefire misfired as the aging conductor, Jules Pasdeloup, miscued the orchestra’s entrance.
from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2013
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