'Hamelin plays it [Dukas] fabulously, surmounting its various challenges with ease, achieving just the right note of tender intimacy—in contrast to the rest of the work—in the slow movement. He is tremendously exciting in the Scherzo, but above all he expounds the vast architecture and drama of the finale as few have managed to … Altogether this is a marvellous issue, and yet another distinguished addition to Hamelin's swift-growing discography' (International Record Review)
'Symphonic in scope, Dukas's four long movements present pianists with an unusual challenge. The music doesn't show off technique, but it's nonetheless fiendish to play, and unless delivered by a thinking virtuoso it sounds rather unspectacular. A clear case of 'send for Hamelin' … This is edgy stuff, played with tenderness and flamboyance, atmospherically recorded' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Dukas's monumental sonata is one of the under-appreciated masterpieces of the French piano repertoire, and it is also a perfect showcase for Hamelin's extraordinary keyboard talents' (The Guardian)
'Hamelin, one hardly needs to say, makes light of any difficulty, clarifying complex textures and subtly highlighting different voices with myriad keyboard colours … This performance has expressive power and intense emotional involvement that make it one of his most successful recordings—and that is saying something' (Gramophone)
'easily the best recorded performance of Dukas’s massive sonata…In Hamelin’s hands, the Dukas sonata is given a clarity of expression and an overall sweep lacking in the other recordings. His tonal palate being much wider than his colleagues, he is able to engage us more emotionally in a work better known for its intellectual properties. He also underplays passages that are pushed relentlessly in less understanding hands…Hamelin gives us added respect for the composer’s imagination…Roger Nichols has supplied probing notes and Hyperion excellent sound' (American Record Guide)
'[Hamelin] balances the intial seething turbulence with quiet introspection. A breathtakingly lovely second movement precedes technical fireworks and reflective, harmonically colorful phrases in the third before Mr Hamelin propels the majestic finale to a virtuosic conclusion' (The New York Times)
'Hamelin brings his characteristic virtues to both works. There's his ability to maintain momentum without sacrificing detail…and his variety of colour evoked in each hand… In short, this one's a must' (Fanfare, USA)
'Avec la prodigieuse faculté que possède Hamelin de clarifier les textures, de mettre en relief quelques aticulations décisives du discours, de différencier les voix en jouant de l'extraordinaire diversité de timbres de son toucher, cette redoutable sonate acquiert une simplicité biblique la mettant au niveau d'un nouveau-né… La maîtrise est totale, olympienne, presque surnaturelle tant la vélocité vertigineuse se soumet aux exigences de l'expression' (Classica-Répertoire, France)
'Hamelin n’a pas son égal pour clarifier les plans sonores et en dégager la clarté et la beauté… Ce formidable pianiste qu’est Marc-André Hamelin se livre ici à une démonstration de ses talents: mise en place des plans sonores, compréhension de l’architecture musicale, puissance expressive et maîtrise technique parfaite' (Crescendo, Belgium)
'This has to be one of my ‘Records of the Year 2006’. Hamelin is known for his explorations of the piano repertoire, but this borders on genius…Simply stunning' (MusicWeb International)
'Cette version remarquable de Marc-André Hamelin…enrichira ta discothèque et ta culture' (ResMusica.com)
'Hamelin is a cult figure to pianophiles, his phenomenal technique matched by an intellectual musicality that's second to none. Dukas's gargantuan Sonata, light years away from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, could seem a white elephant, but Hamelin's magic touch transforms it into a masterpiece. And the weird world of Decaux is a relevation' (BBC Music Magazine)
'This musician has made a career of seeking out the forgotten gems of the pianistic past. His brilliant performance of Dukas's mammoth and technically daunting Piano Sonata was one of the more enjoyable discoveries of 2006' (Boston Globe Best of 2006)
'Hamelin joue le jeu de la vivacité à fond et n'y a aucun rival. Son 4e mouvement est lui aussi fort impressionnant, et, en tous cas très lisztien … Un disque utile, passionnant et référentiel' (ClassicsToday.com, France)
Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu [11'41]
Vivement, avec légèreté [9'16]
Très lent – Animé [13'49]
Minuit passe [4'30]
La ruelle [4'02]
Le cimetière [6'00]
La mer [5'01]
Dukas’ epic and dauntingly virtuosic sonata is one of the composer’s most important works and, in its demands, eminently suited to Marc-André Hamelin’s talents. When Dukas composed his piano sonata at the turn of the century he was consciously adopting a form that invited inevitable comparison with Beethoven, one conspicuously avoided by other French composers of the period. Dukas embraced the challenge, and his sonata is one of the most significant French Romantic piano works, performed relatively infrequently only because of its size and difficulty. It has been a part of Marc-André Hamelin’s concert repertoire for many years, and we are delighted that he has finally committed it to disc.
Also on this CD are four almost completely unknown pieces by Abel Decaux which inhabit their own unique sound world between Scriabin and Debussy, although they explore an extraordinary tonal language that looks ahead to Schoenberg. Decaux is known to have composed nothing other than these four pieces (apart from a sketch for an unfinished fifth piece), written between 1900 and 1907. In the words of Roger Nichols, who supplies a fascinating booklet note, they “seem to come from nowhere; and, indeed, for quite some time, to lead nowhere”. Marc-André Hamelin’s compelling advocacy once again convinces us that not all little-known music deserves its obscurity.
Other recommended albums
French music for the piano in the years 1870 to 1914, between the Franco–Prussian and First World Wars, has been so strongly marked in the popular imagination by the so-called ‘Impressionist’ writing of Debussy and Ravel, and before them of Chabrier, that it is easy to forget that this is by no means the whole picture.
For one thing, there was also Fauré who, starting often from Chopinesque premises, developed a style that was not in the slightest degree Impressionist, as his titles (Nocturne, Barcarolle, Impromptu) make clear. Then, from an earlier generation, there was César Franck, who took his time assimilating Wagner’s harmonic and constructive methods before producing his twin masterpieces, the Prélude, choral et fugue and the Prélude, aria et final, in 1884 and 1886–7 respectively. While it would be unfair to both composers to suggest that they were wholly unconcerned with texture, there can be no doubt that both of them thought primarily in thematic shapes, in motives to be worked and developed into a satisfying whole.
Those forty-four inter-war years saw unparalleled productivity among French composers, and often at an extremely high level. The impulse, as has generally been recognized, was the foundation of the Société nationale de musique in 1871, designed to promote French music and, implicitly, show the world that in the musical field at least France was not intending to bow to its German neighbours. In this endeavour chamber music featured largely. But there was one medium that composers fought shy of, and we may reasonably ask ourselves why.
Neither Gounod, Massenet, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Fauré, Chausson, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Roussel, Honegger nor Poulenc wrote a piano sonata. Franck wrote one, but it remained unpublished—not surprisingly as he was thirteen at the time. Vincent d’Indy also wrote one, but not until 1907. So when Dukas completed his own Sonata on 7 September 1900 he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was ploughing a new furrow, one that was to be continued over the next century by Milhaud, Auric, Dutilleux and Boulez.
Paul Dukas was born in Paris in 1865, entered the Conservatoire in 1881 and came second in the Prix de Rome in 1888. His father was a financier and Paul could always rely on private means. But he was also highly self-critical, so that the whole decade of the 1890s during which he was pursuing a composing career saw the appearance of just three works: an overture Polyeucte (1892), the Symphony in C and the symphonic poem L’apprenti sorcier (both 1897). In thinking about why Dukas, who was no sort of pianist, should then turn to writing a piano sonata, we can also address the question of why this medium should be so studiously avoided by other French composers.
Much of the answer can be put into one word: Beethoven. The years round 1900 saw an extraordinary rise in Beethoven’s reputation in France, amounting almost to deification, in which he was credited in some quarters with possessing those qualities of strength, determination and transcendence over the material world which the French (those quarters said) so plainly lacked. Any new piano sonata was necessarily going to be compared with the best of Beethoven. In Dukas’s embrace of the piano sonata format there were therefore both moral and competitive elements—as the music itself proclaims unambiguously. In such a conception there can obviously be little or no room for the purely diverting or the sensuously decadent. In depth, height, breadth and any other similar measure you care to adopt, the Dukas Sonata is a serious work.
Each of the four movements develops its ideas at length. The anxious, tormented chromaticism of the opening theme sets the tone of the first movement, in traditional sonata form. The second theme, in bass octaves, is harmonically somewhat more relaxed, although the flow of semiquavers is unimpeded. The development contains some stabbing octaves split between the hands that look ahead to the figuration of the third movement.
The gentler second movement, also in sonata form, at times recalls the central Andante of the Symphony in C. Running in parallel with the sonata structure, the figuration gradually increases in speed throughout the movement, from crotchets to sextuplet semiquavers, before the calm of the final perdendosi.
The third movement is a scherzo in ABA form, but predictably reminiscent of Beethoven rather than of Mendelssohn or Saint-Saëns. Here the pattern of alternating hands already heard in the first movement dominates the outer sections, producing brilliantly virtuosic music, in contrast with the sobriety of much of what we have heard so far. Possibly Ravel had this passage in mind when writing the Toccata of Le tombeau de Couperin in 1917. The central section is built on a much slower chromatic idea treated fugally and marked mystérieusement; Alfred Cortot in his book on French piano music remarks on its maleficent, nightmarish atmosphere—proof, if that were needed, that fugal textures do not have to be arid or academic. A brief coda contrasts the two ideas before signing off pianissimo.
In the final movement, again in sonata form, a fantasia-like section leads to the aspirational main theme. Fragments of the work’s opening idea appear inverted and the tension resolves onto a second theme, one of the most harmonically stable moments in the whole work. While d’Indy claimed this theme derived from the plainsong Pange lingua, it is probably closer to the slow second theme of Liszt’s Sonata. After a lengthy, exciting development, the reprise finally ushers in E flat major for the coda.
The work’s first performance, by Edouard Risler at the Salle Pleyel on 10 May 1901, was enthusiastically received by both public and critics. But such a wholehearted acceptance of Beethovenian ‘dark-to-light’ principles could hardly be expected to please everyone in the Paris of those times. Debussy, for one, as a close friend of the composer, found himself in a difficult position when publishing his opinion in La revue blanche. ‘[Music] is for him an inexhaustible store of forms’, he wrote, ‘and of possible memories which allow him to shape his ideas according to the world of his imagination’—words that can mean much what anyone wants them to. But if we recall the blistering things Debussy had to say about Gluck, Beethoven and Berlioz, to name only a few, we can reflect comfortably that even a genius like Debussy had his deaf spots.
Perhaps the most interesting comment on the Sonata came from Dukas himself when, in 1915, Guy Ropartz, the director of the Nancy Conservatoire, announced he was choosing the Sonata as a competition piece. Dukas wrote of ‘the analogy between victory over the beast within which I tried to put into music, and the other victory, the great one, the one that comes from every corner of the horizon, helping us trample underfoot the beast without, so real and almost as ugly (shall we say dirty), of which we had no inkling in those days. You may see it as no more than a symbolic correspondence, one for musicians that only they can understand, going back to a time when our distant ancestors gave a moral meaning to their symphonic poems (for solo cithara!), describing the triumph of Apollo over the Pythian serpent! There’s something of that here.’
If Dukas’s Sonata breaks new ground while using traditional methods, then there are elements in Abel Decaux’s set of four pieces entitled Clairs de lune that seem to come from nowhere; and indeed, for quite some time, to lead nowhere, at least as far as the French music around them was concerned.
Decaux’s biography is soon told, but is none the less surprising for that. Born in Auffay in 1869, the same year as Roussel and seven years after Debussy, he studied the organ with Widor and Guilmant and composition with Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire. For twenty-five years from around the turn of the century he was organist at Sacré-Cœur, then in 1923 he went to America and taught the organ at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Out of this routine life came the four extraordinary pieces on this disc (no other works by him are known, other than sketches for a fifth piece of the set, ‘La forêt’).
An epigraph from the writer Louis de Lutèce sets the scene, with its white moon gliding silently in space, its motionless ghosts, pale luminescences, mysterious shadows, the carcass of a yowling cat …. This is the world of Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings, translated by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, were the (masochistic) bedside reading of many a French artist of the fin-de-siècle, including Gide, Debussy and Ravel: Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit belongs to the same company. Even Debussy ultimately found the task of setting The Fall of the House of Usher beyond him, but Decaux’s more limited ambition succeeded most remarkably in bringing to life this world beyond what we call reality.
He wrote the pieces between 1900 and 1907, but they were not published until 1913. Whatever the reason for the delay (perhaps no other publisher would take them seriously?), Decaux’s teacher Massenet died in 1912 and so was spared what would surely have been a rude shock, not so much at the technique—as Richard Taruskin has pointed out, everything stems from the two falling bell motives at the outset (major second, major third; minor second, minor third)—as at the extraordinary harmonies and the no less extraordinary syntax. Whole tone aggregations (as at the beginning of ‘La ruelle’) and consecutive fifths were nothing so out-of-the-way around 1900, but some of Decaux’s chords seem to have been taken from a source such as the songs in Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten; the only problem being that these weren’t written until 1909. Throughout, major and minor triads are scrupulously avoided or else, as in ‘La mer’, coloured persistently with a sharpened fourth. Again, this piece was written in December 1903, nearly two years before the premiere of Debussy’s La mer and six years before his similarly wild Prélude ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’.
Detailed analysis of these strange pieces goes against their grain. Better simply to submit ourselves to what Messiaen, in the title to one of his own piano pieces, was to call ‘les sons impalpables du rêve’—‘the impalpable sounds of the dream’.
Roger Nichols © 2006