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Hyperion Records

CDA67931 - Dubois: Piano Concertos
CDA67931

Recording details: June 2012
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
Release date: July 2013
DISCID: 790F5209
Total duration: 65 minutes 24 seconds

'Appealing melodic invention and imaginative orchestration … the Concerto-capriccioso unfolds with a continuous plethora of ideas eagerly taken up by Cédric Tiberghien and the ever-alert Andrew Manze … Hyperion's customary top-drawer recording' (Gramophone)

'Dubois' music—beautifully crafted, highly tuneful and harmonically daring—gains a new stature here in the mercurial hands of Cédric Tiberghien and Andrew Manze' (The Observer)

'Dubois composed continually, and thanks to this expertly played, recorded and presented Hyperion production, we can now hear what his piano music actually sounds like … Cédric Tiberghien's modern grand sparkles … Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra offer sterling support … congratulations to Hyperion on yet another splendid production: series collectors will have already ordered it blind, and I recommend it to any listeners jaundiced at the prospect of yet another disc of Grieg, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin' (International Record Review)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos
Allegro  [11'36]
Moderato  [6'41]
Allegretto  [3'05]
Andante  [6'39]
Allegro vivo  [4'41]

The wonderful French pianist Cédric Tiberghien has made several admired recital and chamber recordings. Now he joins the impressive roster of pianists who have contributed to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series with Volume 60: Théodore Dubois. Three works by this French composer are included here, and they present a captivating panorama of the evolution of Dubois’ style over some forty years: the Concerto-capriccioso of 1876 seems like a preliminary study in the style of such composers as Weber and Mendelssohn, whereas the highly Romantic Concerto in F minor (1897) is reminiscent of Saint-Saëns. The completely unknown Suite for piano and strings (1917), for its part, resembles a neoclassical pastiche.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
I don’t know if I’m wrong, but I feel quite sure that if later on, after I’m gone, [my works] come to the attention of unprejudiced musicians and critics, there will be a backlash in my favour! I won’t be there to enjoy it, but that doesn’t matter, it’s a nice thought! … People are bound to find enough good things among all I leave behind me to do me some degree of justice! (Théodore Dubois, personal diary, 18 December 1922)

Théodore Dubois is an unloved figure. Often scorned as the author of a forbidding treatise on harmony, he has come to symbolize the official artistic circles of a fin de siècle France overcast by the worrying shadow of a fiercely decried ‘academicism’. Born in 1837, he began his career as an outstandingly gifted student at the Paris Conservatoire, where he won multiple prizes, notably for the piano and for composition, including a Premier Grand Prix de Rome (1861). On his return to France from his residence at the Villa Medici, he immediately embarked on the natural course of a regular and patient professional ascent. Appointed professor of harmony at the Conservatoire in 1871, he became professor of composition there ten years later, then its director from 1896 until his retirement in 1905. Alongside these activities, he held a variety of posts in the field of church music, notably as organist of the Madeleine (1877–96). Honoured by the official milieux, elected a member of the Institut de France in 1894, Dubois enjoyed a privileged position for which his reputation was to suffer after his death. Yet, while remaining faithful to his ideals of clarity and respect for tradition, he was receptive to the advanced ideas of his time, as is demonstrated by his membership of the Société Nationale de Musique. His vast and varied output, eclectic in its inspiration, touches on every genre, and proclaims its indebtedness to Franck and Schumann as much as Brahms and Saint-Saëns.

In an extremely varied catalogue of works, Dubois showed no special enthusiasm for the concerto, probably because he was not himself a virtuoso of the front rank (although he was a genuinely talented organist). Naturally enough, when he did set out to write concertante music, it was to the three ‘reigning’ instruments of the Romantic era that he turned: the piano on three occasions (Concerto-capriccioso, Concerto No 2 in F minor, Suite for piano and strings), the violin (a concerto), and the cello (Andante cantabile, Fantaisie-stück). He coupled cello and piano in a masterly work (the Suite concertante, with orchestra) that deserves to be considered as one of his finest achievements. The three works recorded here present a captivating panorama of the evolution of Dubois’s style over some forty years: the Concerto-capriccioso of 1876 seems like a preliminary study in the Romantic style of such composers as Weber and Mendelssohn, whereas the Concerto in F minor (1897) aspires to the monumentality of the first years of post-Romanticism. The Suite for piano and strings (1917), for its part, resembles a neoclassical pastiche, some passages of which appear almost to foreshadow Poulenc.

The modest Concerto-capriccioso, premiered in April 1876 by Jeanne Duvinage, the composer’s wife, functions on a unitary principle frequent since the vogue of the Germanic Konzertstück, of which Weber and Schumann left fine examples: a single movement structured as three fairly short linked sections. But where certain compositions of this type opt for an ‘open’ plan, in which each of the three sections introduces new material (possibly with a reprise), the Concerto-capriccioso falls back on an ABA’ form which presupposes a recurrence of the first themes after the brief slow episode. This less elaborate structure is explained by the fact that this piece was written some twenty years before the F minor Concerto and forty years before the Suite. It must be acknowledged that the inspiration of certain orchestral tuttis is not yet on the level of the later works, but that is no reason to deny oneself the pleasure of appreciating the luxuriant virtuosity deployed in the piano part. A long introductory cadenza at once places the entire work under the authority of an omnipresent soloist. The orchestra’s discursive role is fairly limited, but the brevity of the piece offsets the absence of genuine symphonic development. The opening Allegro presents two contrasting themes, the first nobly restless, the second eminently ‘Romantic’ with agitated triplets in the left hand. The brief slow movement seems more of a free fantasia than a full-blown musical structure, and probably owes its delightful harmonic excursions to Dubois’s improvisatory talents on the organ. After this, violins and cellos in octaves once more take up the initial theme of the first movement (subtly transformed for the occasion) while in the final section the soloist displays increased virtuosity, culminating in a spectacular coda. Though devoid of any great compositional pretensions, the Concerto-capriccioso is an attractive bravura piece, which may still be listened to with curiosity and pleasure.

Published by Heugel—a firm that remained faithful to Dubois throughout his career—the Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 30 January 1898 by the pianist Clotilde Kleeberg (1866–1909), who had also given the first performance of Dubois’s set of solo piano pieces Poèmes sylvestres. The orchestra was conducted by Paul Taffanel. Le Ménestrel reviewed the event on 6 February in terms highly laudatory for both performer and work:

Mlle Clotilde Kleeberg then played the Second Piano Concerto in F minor of M. Théodore Dubois, which was receiving its first hearing. The work is interesting, very modern in style and happily proportioned; the solo instrument does not misuse its predominance and often assumes a concertante role, taking its place in the symphonic movement. Unfortunately, the auditorium of the Opéra is so resistant to music that the piano could barely be heard in the course of the first movement. The Adagio that follows is attractive in colour, and its conclusion, con sordini, produces a felicitous effect; Mademoiselle Kleeberg played it very nicely, as she did the Allegro scherzando, which is nimble, lively, and elegant in rhythm. Its only fault—a rare one—is that it is too brief. The obligatory cadenza, instead of coming at the end of a movement as is usual, here appears at the start of the finale, Allegro con fuoco, a fast and cheerful piece with an attractive fugal passage, which ends the work on a warm note that invites applause. It certainly received that on this occasion, as did its excellent interpreter, who, with her stylishness, her virtuosity, her grace, succeeded in bringing out all its qualities of charm and colour.

The first movement of the concerto is by far the most extended, notably because it is founded on a multitude of themes and motifs which ensure variety. The initial tutti, a worthy heir to the thunderous openings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos, is assigned to the orchestra. It is answered by a second theme in Franckist harmonies. A false entry from the piano, with a simple but effective octave scale, leads to a reprise of the tutti. The soloist then presents a new theme of his own—one of Dubois’s finest melodic inspirations in this concerto—which is at once taken up and varied. The second theme displays a similar caressing lyricism, recalling Chopin in its elegant decorations and its delicately swaying accompaniment. A refined development with skilful harmonic progressions reintroduces the initial themes and motifs in extremely rich orchestral textures. Virtuosity does not seem to be the principal preoccupation of the composer, who has clearly taken into account the modern phenomenon of the symphonic concerto, in which the discursive role of the orchestra is preponderant. The passagework that punctuated the Concerto-capriccioso is much rarer here and is almost always superimposed on elaborate thematic working.

The second movement—a traditional but concise ternary form—is again based on a theme of great sensuality, although Dubois asks for it to be played ‘with gravity’. A presentation of this theme in bare octaves on the piano recalls the austere recitatives of Liszt or Chopin, but here its purpose is to prepare the climax of this Adagio: a reprise on full strings of the principal theme, on which the soloist superimposes a demanding motif of swirling runs. Without overusing this formula, Dubois concludes the movement in an atmosphere of tranquillity with witty harmonic twists characteristic of his style, which is never as smoothly conventional as one imagines.

The brief scherzo, typically French, manages in its own way to combine the elegance of a motif that Saint-Saëns and Pierné would not have disowned with monumental tuttis enlivened by agitated solo passagework. Rarely enough for its period, this movement might almost be thought too short, for the enjoyment it gives is still far from palling when it comes to an end. The soloist launches the finale with a written-out cadenza that recapitulates all the themes heard earlier. After this, the last movement is free to deploy its shimmering virtuosity in the manner of Saint-Saëns, with a few skilful contrapuntal passages thrown in.

Dubois wrote in his diary on the date of 24 August 1917: ‘Today is the eightieth anniversary of my birth! Thank God, I am still in pretty good health and fit enough. My grand-daughter greeted me this morning with these words: “Grandpa, there are plenty of eighty-year-olds who are in worse shape than you!” A sweet tribute of childish innocence! I can still work without fatigue, and indeed today I have just finished writing a Suite for piano and strings. It seems not too bad to me, but I may be deceiving myself, alas! I shall leave it be for a while; that is a good way to assess it more accurately a little later. I have often felt the benefit of proceeding thus.’

The Suite comprises four contrasting movements in a manner reminiscent of that of the Suite concertante for cello, piano and orchestra, written in 1912. Already, at that time, Dubois had wondered which form to adopt: ‘I’m starting on a work for piano, cello and orchestra … What should I call it? “Concerto”, “Symphonie concertante”, or “Suite concertante”? “Concerto” is rather hackneyed; “Symphony” much too solemn; “Suite” seems to me more appropriate to the nature of the ideas I want to use and the development I want to give them. So it will be, I think, a suite, and in four sections.’

The Suite of 1917 begins with a Moderato of a certain gravity in which the strings are treated in a genuinely symphonic style. A tight-knit melodic dialogue gives way to a more virtuosic outpouring from the piano at the end of the movement. The scherzo prolongs the alternating discourse of the first movement, notably in its sinuous secondary theme. This very brief movement ends with a touch of humour. The splendid slow movement does not deny itself the pleasure of an ardent, tender post-Romanticism. The cellos and a solo violin display the full potential of an orchestra of divided strings, with the keyboard slipping willingly into the role of accompanist. The finale, more classical in cut with its unison scales and its almost Mozartian runs, is initially founded on brief motifs rather than a true theme. But soon a lyrical section recalls Dubois’s usual language. It is here that certain harmonic colorations and offbeat rhythmic accents seem to herald the future wave of neoclassicism (even though the composer was contemptuous of this in its more modern manifestations). The formidable energy of this finale at no point allows one to guess the venerable age of its composer.

Alexandre Dratwicki © 2013
English: Charles Johnston


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