July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

The Juilliard String Quartet, with Jorge Bolet, piano

Hey, Rodney Dangerfield, you think you’ve got problems? Be glad you weren’t in Frenchman César Franck’s shoes on the night of Jan. 17, 1880. Franck asked the composer Camille Saint-Saëns to be the pianist that night at the premiere of Franck’s Piano Quintet. Saint-Saëns obliged, but reportedly found the music so abhorrent he stomped off the stage at the end and refused to take the manuscript, which Franck had dedicated to him. Franz Liszt, as the story goes, in a piece of grand hubris, attacked the quintet as emotionally overwrought (for a modern equivalent, imagine Mike Wallace calling Barbara Walters pushy). Félicité Franck, the composer’s wife, also spoke out vehemently on Liszt’s side. But Franck finally did get some respect. Over the next decade appreciative audiences drowned out the initial jeers. They weren’t just being kind to the old church organist. This is a four-handkerchief quintet, one of the most poignant and propulsive in the Romantic inventory. (The Serenade, one of Austrian composer Hugo Wolf’s most celebrated works, makes a stirring and lyrical companion.) There is only one other version of the quintet in print, made in 1962 by an exacting ensemble that included violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The electricity and pathos brought to the piece here by the thrilling Juilliard and Bolet, a Cuban pianist with an exquisite touch, should last at least as long.

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