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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Piano Sonata in E flat minor (1899-1900) [43:49]
Variations, Interlude et Finale (sur un thème de Rameau) (1902) [17:33]
La plainte, au loin, du faune (1920) [4:25]
Prélude élégiaque (1909) [4:06]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas  (1935) [3:17]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. Concert Artist Studios, December 2004 (Sonata); January 2005 (Variations); January 2006 (remainder)

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I have bad news for those who invested in Marc-André Hamelin’s much-admired Hyperion recording of the Dukas sonata. This one is even better. The superiority seems to me to reside partly in an awareness of the architecture of a work that is big in every sense, partly in a coalescence of tonal beauty and chordal power, and partly in the deployment of an unholy technical assurance to entirely and astutely musical ends. Naturally this doesn’t mean that Hamelin’s performance is less than powerful and convincing - rather that Hatto’s is even more so.

The first movement melody lines sing out in her hands; the E flat minor episode is full of contained urgency. Concert Artist’s higher recording level brings a sense of immediacy to the perspective; Hamelin’s Hyperion is characteristically mellow but somewhat recessive. This is useful in hearing the great digital clarity she brings to bear. But the even more pertinent detail lies in the naturalness of her expression, compared with which Hamelin sounds oddly fidgety and sporting a rather self conscious rubato; he seems to overplay paragraphal points. The great freedom he allows himself can play havoc with the first movement’s structure – it certainly conveys instability and is undeniably exciting but it’s Hatto to whom I turn in preference for a clear-eyed appraisal of this difficult and long movement.

I sense here the truth of her booklet comments – required reading for Hattoists by the way – regarding Giseking and the playing of French impressionist music; how a Gieseking vogue seemed to annul other points of view, other less pedal-obsessed ones, in the years following Gieseking’s death. That’s a subject for another occasion of course – George Copeland is one of the obvious names to advance in support of this argument – but it bears on her Dukas playing. One wouldn’t wish to characterise Hamelin’s reading solely as one of rhetorical exaggeration because it has many wonderful things about it but it’s Hatto who fuses the nobility and the struggle and to maximum effect. 

I’ve belaboured the first movement to make the point. The halo of sound in the second reinforces it. Hatto is fleeter (as she is throughout) and unfolds the gentle melodic material with direction. She delineates its curve and cantilever bringing great tonal beauty and roundness and evenness of tone. I am still troubled by Hamelin’s occasionally disruptive approach but his playing as such is superb nonetheless. As indeed he is in the scintillating scherzo, which is certainly an event in his hands, a gossamer start full of braggadocious brio. Still, I sense that Hatto makes it more musical; less Sinding, more Chopin, perhaps, to be crude. Her tempo is slightly steadier but she doesn’t have to slow so much, as Hamelin does, for the start of the three-part fugue and thereby keeps the underlying pulse going. Once more this approach spans the vistas of this towering work and one that allows Dukas the honour of his wit. Wit, I confess, I find rather lacking in Hamelin’s playing generally, and certainly here. Not so Hatto, who finds plenty. For all its scintillation this scherzo has to be about something more than mere mechanics and its Chopinesque moments fall the more naturally under Hatto’s fingers.

Equally so the finale, played with great distinction, the melodies given their full rounded romantic richness, the sense of space paramount; deft touches ensure full detonation of left hand accents, Lisztian configurations are never vulgar. The playing gets ever more exciting and dramatic, but it’s all very natural, and that makes it the more dramatic still. Hamelin is a deal slower and more italicised, more dogged, and deliberately so. Again it’s the combination of tonal luminescence and a sure and direct pathway that wins the day for Hatto, who ends in blazoning glory.

Which hasn’t left me much by way of comment regarding the “fillers.” Filler is certainly the wrong word for the oft-ignored Variations, Interlude et Finale (sur un thème de Rameau) written quite shortly after the Sonata. But this will be a very worthwhile discovery for many. It’s harmonically questing, clever and skilfully laid out. She is powerfully incursive in the second variation and utilises plenty of tone colours. Her fifth variation is more than a touch creepy, the seventh glitters like Sherlock Holmes’s Mazarin Stone and the Finale is a real study in dextrous and witty pointing of detail. Hatto makes this work really spring to life. 

There are also two other pieces, La plainte, au loin, du faune, a grave and allusive tribute to the recently departed Debussy and Prélude élégiaque a curiously personal and haunting, chordally rich piece from 1909. As a finale there is de Falla’s own 1935 tribute to Dukas, a grave and romantic envoi full of deep chords and the great warmth of restraint.

I’ve not mentioned Chantal Stigliani’s all-Dukas Naxos disc which replicates this one but doesn’t include the de Falla tribute [8.557053]. She is a conscientious player but in all candour she is not in the competition. Too much is cluttered and muddled and not much springs to life; and with a noisy pedal action and a clinical recording her traversal must be passed by.

William Hedley’s notes are full of important detail. The sound as noted above is full, clear and immediate, without any splintering in fortes. And the bonus of Hatto’s own amusingly wry recollections is a very real one. As I said, if you invested in Hamelin you owe it to yourself, and also to Dukas, to seek out Hatto.

Jonathan Woolf




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