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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music: Volume 22

Deux Polonaises, S233 (1851) [20’55]; Ballades: No; 1 in D flat, S170 (1845-8) [7’37]; No; 2 in B minor, S171 (1853) [14’21]; Album d'un voyageur, S156 (1835/6) – Au bord d’une source, [5’08]; Trois morceaux suisses, S156a (1877) [26’28]
Jean Dubé (piano)
Rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, on June 16th-17th, 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557364 [74’28]


The Naxos tradition of forwarding the career of competition winners continues with Jean Dubé, winner of the Sixth Utrecht Liszt Competition in 2002; one competition distinction among many, it seems. Something of a prodigy - performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Radio France Philharmonic at the age of nine - he is a pupil of John O’Conor.

Dubé is a sensitive musician, of that there is no doubt. It is a quality that stands him in good stead in the music of Liszt. This is a fascinating programme he has picked or had picked for him. The most popular work is the shortest, ‘Au bord d’une source’, although the two Ballades have swung in and out of popularity. Jorge Bolet, I seem to remember, gave a memorable Second at the RFH once. The Polonaises and, especially, the Trois Morceaux Suisses, sit more towards the fringes of Lisztian output.

The first of the two Polonaises, in C minor, is sometimes known as ‘Polonaise mélancholique’, and with good reason. Some of the filigree is decidedly Chopinesque, veering suddenly back to unmistakable Liszt as if to correct itself. Dubé shows himself as a clear talent, not intervening too much, just allowing the music to flow. He is particularly good at the darker side of this composer; something that will stand him in good stead in the second Ballade. The piano recording is more than acceptable without being overly noteworthy – there have been better sounds coaxed out of this venue (Potton Hall).

The second Polonaise is more heroic in nature. There is a ‘twang’ to the recording that some might not warm to when Dubé veers towards the fff. Nevertheless, this makes for riveting listening, and Dubé catches the flights of fantasy well.

The first Ballade has a subtitle of ‘Le chant du croisé’ ('The Crusader’s Song'). Dubé coaxes a rich sound from his instrument, his voicing is exemplary and he brings across some sense of quasi-improvisation. But it is in the B minor Ballade that Dubé actually excels. The initial left-hand exemplifies the care here, sitting on the line between definition of individual notes (one can hear them all) and ominous rumbling. If Dubé tries too hard in the chordal statements, he elucidates the structure well by means of mature pacing.

Au bord d’une source emerges logically and effectively out of the decrescendo that closed the preceding Ballade. Surprisingly, though, this brief piece (5’08) is given a stilted rendition. On the stiff side, the waters refuse to flow as in Nature (appoggiaturas similarly sound forced).

Repertoire-wise, the most interesting inclusion here by far is the Trois morceaux suisses, published as ‘Op. 10’ (later appearing in the ‘Album d’un voyageur’). The first is ‘Ranz des vaches: Mélodie de Ferdinand Huber, avec variations’. Dubé is obviously ‘thinking’ in terms of a brass instrument in the opening ‘call-to-arms’ before the set of free variations gets under way. Few composers can produce Variation sets like Liszt, and Dubé leads us through them with an assured hand. The second is a Nocturne (‘Un soir dans la montagne: Mélodie d’Ernest Knop’. It takes the form of a yodelling song melody by Knop. Being a Nocturne it is not quite what one might expect of a yodelling tune. It also includes some ‘stormy weather’ during its travels. Finally, a Goatherder’s Song provides the material for the third (again, Huber). By turns turbulent, delightful, playful and (finally) unabashedly virtuoso, it suits Dubé’s youth to a tee.

Well worth hearing. Dubé is a pianist to watch. His biography paints a portrait of a well-travelled artist, but one that has yet to reach the shores of the UK. Maybe this can be fixed?

Colin Clarke

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