DUKAS: Complete Piano Works = Piano Sonata; La Plainte, au loin, du Faune; Variations, Interlude, et Finale sur un thème de Rameau; Prélude élégiaque sur le nom de Haydn – Laurent Wagschal, p. – Timpani 1C1211 [Distr. by Naxos], 67:12 (1/28/14) ***(*):
This disc conveniently collects most of the piano music that Paul Dukas wrote in his seventy years. But then he left little music in any genre; while he composed a good deal, he destroyed just about as much, being a ruthless self-critic. So among his published works, there are an early concert overture (Polyeucte) and a strong C Major Symphony, a ravishing ballet score with a famous fanfare (La Peri), a fascinating opera based on Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Ariane et Barbe-bleue, and of course The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Besides this, there are a couple of works for voice with piano, plus a lovely Villanelle for horn and piano, and that’s it.
If he left few works behind, Dukas left some imposing ones, including the monumental Piano Sonata (1900), at forty-fplus minutes one of the longest such works I know of. It has a gruff, dogged quality that reminds some commentators of Beethoven filtered through the chromatic lens of Franck. The Franck connection is immediately apparent in the restless sixteenth-note figures in groups of three that go on for thirty some measures, recalling the obsessive repetitions in Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, et Fugue. After all this Sturm und Drang, the second movement—marked Calme, un peu lent, tres soutenu—is indeed calming, at least initially, and there are moments that are pure radiance in the course of the piece. But there are also jarring dissonances; and a series of rocking sixteenth-note sextuplets in the bass lead to another darkly brooding section, the clouds lifting only in the brief, quiet coda. In the next movement we have Schumann-meets-Franck, a hurricane of a toccata relieved only by the usual becalmed eye at the center of the storm. The finale, the longest movement of all, starts with an improvisatory slow introduction followed by a sonata-allegro launched by an echt-Franckian first theme group with lots of chromatic twists and turns. The second group is a galloping, increasingly ebullient affair that will dominate the development section, then lend its bright halo of sound to the triumphant recapitulation and coda. After all this, if the pianist’s fingers aren’t just about smoking, he hasn’t been half trying!
I can assure you that Laurent Wagschal is trying; his performance is brilliant in the extreme, all those measures upon measures filled with eighth and sixteenth notes played with the sharpest articulation. It’s all pretty staggering. Wagschal cedes no ground even to the flintily virtuosic Marc-André Hamelin, whose version on Hyperion is a standard. However, Hamelin’s performance is interpretively rather different. His tempi are slower overall (he takes four minutes longer than Wagschal), and he uses more rubato and dynamic shading, emphasizing Dukas’ Franckian expressive gestures. Listening to Hamelin after Wagschal, I found the former a bit mannered, brilliant though his playing is. But here might be a good place to mention, for those who like to skim reviews, that the final paragraph contains an important caveat you’ll want to consider.
The sonata is a bearish and somewhat intractable piece that doesn’t fully establish Dukas’ compositional voice, at least not to the extent his orchestral works do. The Variations, interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau, while bearing one of those tripartite titles that Franck favored, is for me a more individual, as well as a more fluent work. Like Saint-Saëns, the dedicatee of the Piano Sonata, Dukas was inspired by France’s Classical (or rather Baroque) past, anticipating the neo-Classicism that dominated French music after the Great War. Compared to the Sonata, Dukas’ Variations does have a kind of purity of musical line, even as it atomizes Rameau’s little theme to near unrecognizability—that is, before the theme returns in a confident, buoyant restatement which is sheer uplift.
Both of the short pieces on the program are tributes to a departed composer, the Prélude élégiaque written on the occasion of the centenary of Haydn’s death (1909). It’s quietly respectful, while La Plainte, au loin, du Faune, written in 1920 as a contribution to the Tombeau de Debussy is pained, the loss far more immediate and personal, Debussy having been dead a mere two years. Appropriately, Dukas bases his piece on the flute melody from Debussy’s Le prémidi d’un faune.
None of these pieces is a stranger to the recording studio; there are quite a number of versions of the best-known work, La Plainte, au loin, du Faune. However, there are only two other recordings that include the complete music for piano, neither of which I’ve heard; but they would have to proffer some towering feats of pianism to outdo Laurent Wagschal’s steely technique and fine-honed interpretive skills.
Wagschal is accorded fine piano sound as well, except—and it’s a big, big except—the recording is plagued by an unceasing low buzz or whistle in the background, something I can’t fathom in an inscription made just last year. I don’t why the recording was released in this state or whether the engineers will edit out the maddening obbligato in the future, but I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t make note of the fact.
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