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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Piano Sonata in E flat minor (1899-1900) [43:49]
Variations, Interlude et Final (1902) [18:19]
La plainte, au loin, du faune (1920) [04:06]
Prélude élégiaque (1909) [04:25]
Manuel de FALLA 1876-1946)

Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935) [03:17]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. 30 December 2004 (Sonata), 3 January 2005 (Variations), 6 January 2006 (Plainte, Prélude) in the Concert Artist Studios
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The steady tread with which the Sonata opens is not easily forgotten. Its layout, with busy figuration in the middle register, a singing upper line and a striding organ-pedal bass, may suggest César Franck. But in place of Franck’s religious fervour Dukas seems to evoke the calm, luminous world of classical Greece. It is indeed a Mount Olympus of a movement. That it has this effect is in no small measure due to the Mozartian clarity and sense of architecture the late, lamented Joyce Hatto brought to it. I do not wish to imply by this a lack of commitment, indeed her belief in the cause is obvious in every bar. Yet it is her lofty overview which remains in the mind. It is an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary movement.

The calm opening of the next movement, for all Hatto’s luminous textures and linear clarity, left me wondering if Dukas does not need a lot of notes to engage us. Later the textures become fuller and attention picks up.

The scherzo is brilliant, toccata-like piece, with a highly contrasted trio. The notes cascade from Hatto’s fingers with apparently no effort at all. I cannot help feeling, however, that Dukas has drifted from his idealistic opening to something closer to mere entertainment and the somewhat doleful fugue constituting its trio only adds to the impression that the composer’s vision is not a wholly coherent one.

After a short introduction the finale opts for Franckian energy and youthful fervour. It is an "easy" solution but undeniably effective. Hatto pitches in with an enthusiasm and fire which carries all before it – I would defy anyone not to respond.

In saying I cannot imagine a finer performance of this work I have to admit that I have not actually been able to compare it with others. A recent Hyperion disc by Marc-André Hamelin was chosen by Colin Clarke as one of his Records of the Year and is obviously the most serious competitor [review]. Readers may wish to turn to Jonathan Woolf’s review of the present disc since he has also heard the Hamelin and explains in some detail why he feels that, good as the Hyperion version is, the Hatto is better still and he made that a November Recording of the Month. A recording once made by John Ogdon was available to neither of us. Britons were probably first alerted to the existence of the Sonata by François Thinat’s Arion LP. It was reviewed in July 1972 by both Gramophone and the EMG Monthly Letter, arousing more interest than enthusiasm. If it the performance really lasted "for almost an hour" as EMG claimed – and so about 15 minutes longer than Hatto’s – this might explain their muted ardour.

Of course, the coupling may be the deciding factor for you. From Hamelin you get a very rare work by Decaux. Hatto plays the rest of Dukas’s slender output for piano.

I suggest the "Variations, Interlude et Finale" may ultimately be the Dukas work most deserving of a place in the regular repertoire. It is perhaps a banal consideration that at 18-19 minutes it can be slipped into a recital without driving away all but specialists. Apart from this, its world seems more completely consistent than that of the Sonata. Dukas succeeds in creating his own personal slant on the world of Franck, bringing a harmonic angularity and asperity, plus the odd touch of droll humour, which makes him a stepping stone between Franck and Roussel, sidestepping Debussy altogether.

A correspondent on the bulletin board drew attention, following Jonathan Woolf’s review, to a version of this piece by Yvonne Léfèbure. Another recording was set down by Nicolai Petrov (briefly available on Olympia) and described by Gramophone in 1988 as a "tour-de-force". I can’t imagine anyone denying that encomium to Joyce Hatto as well.

"La plainte, au loin, du faune" was Dukas’s contribution to an album of pieces by several composers in memory of Debussy published in 1920. It reveals both his clear admiration for the composer, his senior by three years, but also his substantial extraneousness to his world. Quotations from "L’après-midi d’une faune" are intriguingly introduced into an altogether more tangible setting.

The "Prélude élégiaque" was also a contribution to an album. This time the centenary of Haydn’s death was the cause and the collection included works by Debussy and Ravel. There was no particular reason to adopt a grief-struck tone this time but Dukas’s contribution was clearly a deeply-felt affair.

These two shorter pieces are from a session on 6 January 2006 which must have been among Hatto’s last. Although her long struggle against cancer was reaching its conclusion she retains her classic poise, with some beautifully voiced textures.

The disc is concluded by de Falla’s tribute to Dukas. I find this the least interesting music on the disc but that hardly affects the value of the collection as a whole.

As well as thorough notes by William Hedley, the booklet also contains a valuable memoir by Hatto herself. The first paragraph strays afield to say some important things about interpreting Debussy, particularly with regard to performers who have aped Gieseking’s pedalling but not his tempi, obtaining "nonsensical" results. Hopefully, the many recordings by Hatto still awaiting editing will include further Debussy, while her Ravel has already been announced.

I sometimes wish a really dreadful disc by Joyce Hatto would come along just so I can prove that I don’t automatically rubber-stamp every note she plays with automatic praise. But what can I say? Here is yet more treasure from Hatto and Concert Artist – beautifully and warmly recorded, too – and I recommend it urgently to all lovers of French piano music.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf November Recording of the Month

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