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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Piano Sonata in E flat minor (1900) [45:13]
Abel DECAUX (1869-1943)

Clairs de lune (1900-1907) [19:40].
Marc-André Hamelin (piano).
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 26-27 August 2004 (Dukas), 15 December 2005 (Decaux). DDD
HYPERION CDA67513 [64:59]
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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. The Dukas is not unknown territory, for sure, but it needs a shove. The recording by John Ogdon is not easy to find - last seen on EMI Matrix, if I am not mistaken. Margaret Fingerhut on Chandos does not really cut it. Hamelin plays it for all he is worth. Top that off with state-of-the-art booklet notes by Roger Nichols and a gorgeous Monet on the front cover, and this must be a sure-fire winner.

The sheer length of the Dukas sonata presumably accounts for its absence from concert programmes. Yet it is a wonderful work. Indeed hearing the very opening goes some way towards explaining the duration – one is presented with a mouth-watering flow of ideas - exquisitely balanced in this performance. Hamelin, what’s more, seems born to play this. It is as if the music could go on forever, almost Scriabin-like at times in its unwillingness to assert harmonic arrival points. The recording (Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon) is demonstration class. The highest compliment I can give it is to comment that one does not notice its excellence. Rather, attention is focused completely on the music, with no tinny trebles or muffled basses to get in the way.

The second movement (‘Calme, un peu lent’) is elusive, fragmentary and very tender indeed. Once again it is the effortless flow that is most appealing. Hamelin’s legendary technique comes in useful for the ‘Vivement’ third movement. The music positively buzzes; the contrasting sections are real aural balm. The grand finale - very identifiably French chords at the beginning - seems to last much less than its fourteen-minute duration, once again because of Hamelin’s delivery of the effortless ebb and flow. Amazingly, at no point along the way does this work seem overlong.

The inspired coupling is by Abel Decaux. Decaux was an organ student of Widor and Guilmant and a composition student of Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire. He acted as organist at Sacré Coeur for a quarter of a century before moving to the States in 1923 - to teach organ at the Eastman School of Music. Apparently the music on this disc is all that is known by him.

Clairs de lune is a set of four pieces. The first, ‘Menuet passé’, emerges out of a Debussian haze. Very harmonically sensitive, it contains some spikiness and almost abrasive sound explosions. ‘La ruelle’ is mesmeric Night Music (what is the dynamic marking at the end, I wonder – ppppppp?). A mysterious ‘Le cimetière’ leads to a ‘La mer’ that invokes the mystery of the sea; astonishing tremolandi, even for Hamelin! Simply stunning.

Colin Clarke


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