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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67513
Recording details: August 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2006
Total duration: 45 minutes 6 seconds

'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)

'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 … 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)

'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)

'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 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)

'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)

'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)

'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' (The Boston Globe, USA)

'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 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' (Créscendo, France)

'Avec la prodigieuse faculté que possède Hamelin de clarifier les textures, de mettre en relief quelques articulations 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, France)

'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)

'Cette version remarquable de Marc-André Hamelin … enrichira ta discothèque et ta culture' (ResMusica.com, France)

Piano Sonata in E flat minor
composer
7 September 1900

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.’

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2006

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