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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Sonata for Piano in E flat minor (1901) [44:06]
Prélude élégiaque (on the name of Haydn) (1909) [4:31]
Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau (1903) [18:34]
La plainte, au loin, du Faune (from the Tombeau de Claude Debussy) (1921) [4:26]
Tor Espen Aspaas, piano
Recorded 29-31 October 2201 and 12-14 September 2003 in the Sofienberg kirke, Oslo.
SIMAX PSC1177 [72:11]



The fame of Paul Dukas rests on a single work, the ubiquitous Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a composition so universal that it has eclipsed a small but outstanding output of other music.

Dukas was born in 1865 into a wealthy family that encouraged his study of music. After the failure of this First Symphony in 1897, Dukas gained some sweet revenge when his symphonic scherzo based on Goethe’s tale of a sorcerer’s apprentice gone amok became internationally famous. Alas, an over-active self-criticism led to the destruction of many later works, and to a complete creative silence during most of the last decade of his life. Dukas did, however, go on to become one of France’s most respected music critics, and was a successful teacher with Messiaen, Duruflé and Alain numbered amongst his students.

Norwegian pianist Tor Espen Aspaas has done this neglected composer a great service with this outstanding recording of piano works. Opening with the monumental Sonata in e-flat minor, Aspaas brings forth this richly textured, incredibly orchestral work with a perfection that I have seldom heard in a young pianist. He has a complete sense of the grand structure of the work, its frequently shifting moods and its vast palette of colors. Truly symphonic in its scope, the very length of this work - only one movement runs for less than ten minutes - risks the fate that befalls many a later piano sonata; that of disintegrating into a structure-less rambling nothingness. Not so this magnificently constructed work, full of contrasts of mood, at once full of angst and pathos, and then followed by sublime moments of repose.

And the performance! Frankly, I have been bombarded of late with over-ripe piano discs, full of performer ego, background grunting and groaning and brash, tasteless playing. Not so this young artist. He sits at the piano, performs the music with not only technical perfection, but also with a complete control over his own faculties. Oh yes, there is plenty of expression, and Aspaas is by no means afraid to let you know that he has a fabulous technique, but his virtuosity is never at the expense of the music. In short, this is playing of the very highest order. Where has this guy been? And why isn’t he on the cover of magazines. He is far superior to many of the “stars” out there today.

The sonata alone would be enough to make a satisfying record, but we get three more works, beginning with the Prélude élégiaque on the name of Haydn. Dreamy and contemplative, Aspaas gets a rich and sonorous tone from the piano and chooses a pace that is never lugubrious, but still has the necessary solemnity.

The Rameau variations present a much different mood and timbre. Based on a little dance, it is rather startling to hear the seventeenth century harmonies of the original immediately followed by the rich impressionistic sonorities of the later composer. What I found most refreshing about the work was the “Oh my, I wonder what’s next!” anticipation I felt upon my first hearing of the music. Each variation is remarkably fresh and unique. As I listened, I kept wondering how on earth I had missed this music for so long. Again, the performance is clean, flawlessly executed, and the warm but clear tone that Aspaas gets from the piano is fantastic.

The last entry on this outstanding recording is a leaf from a collection of small works put together in tribute to Claude Debussy on his passing. Stravinsky, Satie and de Falla were among the other contributing composers. Based on fragments from Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, this is lonely and sad music, quite effectively expressing the composer’s grief at the loss of his great friend and colleague.

Notes by the artist are informative and concise and the sound quality from Simax is beyond reproach. No lover of piano music should be without this one. Absolutely superior at every level, this is world class music performed by a world class artist. Do I gush? Perhaps, but long-time readers will also know that I am not afraid to call it when it’s bad. Buy this disc. You will thank me, I promise.

Kevin Sutton


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