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  A "Hatto Original"
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Piano Sonata in E flat minor (1899-1900) [44:06]
Prélude élégiaque (1909) [04:31]
Variations, Interlude et Final (1902) [18:34]
La plainte, au loin, du faune (1920) [04:26]
Tor Espen Aspaas (piano)
rec. 29-31 October 2001, 12-14 September 2003, Sofienberg kirke, Oslo

This recording was issued in 2006 as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD 92742

Tor Espen Aspaas is Norwegian and made his début in Oslo in 1997. Since then he has played in Hong Kong, Monaco, Berlin, Madrid and Brussels and has appeared with conductors such as Brüggen and Sinaisky. He also works as a chamber musician and has collaborated with Arve Tellefsen and Håken Hagegård among others. He became associate professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music in 2001 and is Artistic Director of the "Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden" chamber music festival in Røros, Norway. He is also enough of a musicologist and general enthusiast to have written his own excellent and detailed notes for this issue, so it must have been disheartening indeed to find his labour of love so cynically hijacked.

As with other "Hatto originals" I shall reproduce my earlier review, modifying only names and pronouns and any references to other supposed "Hatto" recordings. I would not expect anyone to believe me if I said it all sounds different now. I shall precede this with a discussion of the Hattification procedures that have been applied and will try to assess whether they might change our perception of what we hear. In this case Hattification has not been particularly drastic and seems aimed at deceiving the computer more than the ear.

1. On the Hattified disc, the two short works are played at the end instead of in the order listed above. An additional piece, Manuel de Falla’s tribute to Dukas, has been added. This apparently derives from a performance by Miguel Baselga on Bis, and I will comment on it later if I have the opportunity.

2. Hattification of the sound picture has increased the bass response – now big and booming – and slightly deadened the treble. The piano appears to spread powerfully across the loudspeakers, leaving very little impression of an actual acoustic around it, though there is certainly reverberation in the rests. It is quite impressive, but I prefer the original. A shade brighter and less bass-heavy, it somehow seems cleaner. This is also because the sound-picture is more defined. I get more of an impression of the piano standing about half-way between my loudspeakers with a bit of acoustic around it. I also get the idea the dynamic range has been slightly reduced by the Hattifiers; the pianissimos seem a little softer on the original.

3. Unlike the Chopin Mazurkas, on which I have recently commented, Hattification has produced a spot of time shrinking/stretching, though not by any great amount. Frankly, I was expecting more. The Sonata timings are 11:17, 10:31, 09:30, 12:44 for Aspaas, 11:10, 10:36, 09:29, 12:43 for "Hatto". However, in the last movement the actual music finishes at 12:41 in the Aspaas, 12:35 in "Hatto", so the latter has been slightly more Hattified than it might appear. Nevertheless, something a little more subtle seems to be going on. I don’t have a score of this piece which makes it difficult to go into detail, but it occurred to me to check the position of a musical "landmark" around the mid-point of the third movement. Interestingly, although the overall timing was virtually identical – a difference of one second usually relates to a spot more or less of silence at the beginning and end, not a change of speed – at 5:51 the "Hatto" was three seconds ahead of the original. Having noted this, I chose two landmarks in the finale, the point where the pianist sinks into a swinging Franckian second subject, and the same point in the recapitulation. At the first of these points "Hatto", at 03:58, was lagging two seconds behind Aspaas, at 03:56. But by the second point, "Hatto", at 09:20, had got ahead – Aspaas was now panting behind at 09:22. By the end of the movement "Hatto" has leapt ahead by six seconds! Obviously, one would need a score with which to mark out "landmarks" every minute or so to see exactly what has been done, but it seems clear that their has been a bit of internal stretching and shrinking, aimed more at confounding anyone who tried to set the wave-patterns side by side in his computer than the actual ear. To turn Aspaas’s performances into ones with an apparently different character, something much drastic would be needed.

For in truth, what gives a performance its character is the phrasing, the colouring, the weighting of certain chords, the rubato and so on. I am quite sure that any two performances by Aspaas himself will produce a greater percentage variation of all these elements, including timings, than that introduced here by the Hattifiers.

In the Variations, timings for the most part differ by a second or so, plus or minus. This same difference would be produced anyway in the process of eliminating the original track marks and then putting them back in again slightly differently. For example, in the "Hatto", variations 7 and 9 both begin with a split second or reverberation from the previous tracks, whereas in the original they start cleanly. So for the most part I doubt if any stretching or shrinking has been applied. A reduction from 0:46 to 0:42 (variation 1) is considerable in such a tiny piece and I did seem to hear that the "Hatto" was a bit faster, but probably only because I had been alerted. On the other hand, variation 11 has been stretched by the Hattifiers from 02:26 to 02:35 and I think the original is just that little bit more urgent, if less sombre. A reduction of the Interlude (Aspaas 02:38, "Hatto" 02:30) by eight seconds didn’t have any audible result for me.

Of the shorter pieces, "La plainte" appears to have been shortened considerably but it is the last piece on the Aspaas disc and the track ends with 22 seconds’ silence, so actually I don’t think the tempo has been changed. While the Prélude is six seconds shorter in the "Hatto".

Here, then, is the original review.

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 which Tor Espen Aspaas brings to it. I do not wish to imply by this a lack of commitment, indeed his belief in the cause is obvious in every bar. Yet it is his 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 Aspaas’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 Aspaas’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. Aspaas 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 "Hatto" 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 it 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 the performance really lasted "for almost an hour" as EMG claimed – and so about 15 minutes longer than Aspaas’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. Aspaas 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 Tor Espen Aspaas 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 played by Aspaas with classic poise and some beautifully voiced textures.

I concluded by saying that 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.

Instead, it was yet another con from Hatto, Barrington-Coupe and Concert Artist. So isn’t it treasure any more? Well, as many have pointed out, it does make a difference if you think the music is being played against all odds by an elderly lady battling with terminal cancer. It makes your jaw drop. Whereas, if a young and presumably healthy artist undertakes to record repertoire which is rare, yet nonetheless has a small and often distinguished competitive discography behind it, we expect that he will take the trouble to learn the notes thoroughly and work out a convincing interpretation. Our jaw does not drop when he proves to have done so. Our treasures are where our hearts are, and I suppose Aspaas has not yet captured our hearts as Hatto so fraudulently did. Perhaps he will if he makes more discs of this quality. I can certainly repeat my urgent recommendation of it to all lovers of French piano music. Will he now profit from this unexpected but deserved limelight to explore, for example, Maurice Emmanuel?

I have remarked that Aspaas writes his own excellent notes. Concert Artist also had excellent notes by MusicWeb reviewer William Hedley and a racy account, purporting to be by Hatto herself, of how she came to play the Dukas Sonata for an undisclosed and unprepared Staffordshire music club. Hands up anybody in Staffordshire who heard her play it there! She also tells of a scheduled performance in Paris which never took place. You bet it didn’t!

Christopher Howell


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