Gabriel DUPONT (1878-1914)
Les Heures Dolentes (1903-5) [53:16]
La Maison dans les Dunes (1907-9) [41:18]
Stéphane Lemelin (piano)
rec. Salle Françoys-Bernier, Domaine Forget, Saint-Irénée, Quebec, December 2007. DDD
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2544 [53:16 + 41:18]

The nearest Maurice Ravel got in five attempts to winning the musical Prix de Rome was in 1901, when his String Quartet could only manage third behind André Caplet's cantata Myrrha. This much-told anecdote usually omits to mention the Second Prize winner, who was French composer Gabriel Dupont - no relation to Debussy's lover, Gabrielle Dupont. Dupont's output is small, his life cut short by illness, yet his lack of recognition is a cause for dismay.

This lengthy recital by Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin is the latest in Montreal-based ATMA Classique's 'Musique Française - Découvertes ('Discoveries') 1890-1939', a series which has already attempted to restore other names almost lost to the vagaries of history: Théodore Dubois, Gustave Samazeuilh (review), Guy Ropartz, Georges Migot and Manuel Rosenthal. Every disc features Lemelin, the brains of the project, either as soloist or as part of the Trio Hochelaga.

Dupont wrote Les Heures Dolentes ('The Mournful Hours') whilst suffering and then recuperating from tuberculosis. The suggestive subtitles of the fourteen movements reflect a physical and mental journey through convalescence at a spa, from the peacefulness of 'Evening Falls inside the Bedroom', the early optimism of 'Sunshine in the Garden' and 'A Lady Friend Has Come with Some Flowers', the ambiguities of 'The Doctor', the eerie resignation of 'Death Lurks' and the sinister sonorities and rhythms of 'Sleepless Night - Hallucinations'. Fortunately Dupont survives and the work finishes with relief and perhaps a little hope in 'Calm'. Basically late-Romantic fragranced with Impressionistic petals, recalling at times Fauré, Debussy and Granados, the music is programmatic, but poetic, not clichéd; atmospheric from beginning to end, and overall memorably colourful and rather beautiful, sometimes almost orchestral in effect.

La Maison dans les Dunes ('The House on the Dunes') is even better. Though again composed by Dupont whilst at a seaside refuge for TB sufferers, he was, temporarily at least, in much better health. The vividness of this suite reflects that. The House in question looks out to sea - and what can be seen there in the course of a day, from the movements of the waves to sailboats, all manner of weather and the changing sky, is what the ten movements seek to evoke. The music, steeped in beautiful chromatic harmony, is by turn playful, sun-bathed, agitated, poignant, but always gloriously lyrical. Given especially the watery theme, Debussy not surprisingly looms large, Ravel to a lesser degree, but Dupont's sound is original and in some ways has greater immediacy and wider appeal. The House on the Dunes is transcendent music perfect for gazing out to sea to on warm summer days under great blue skies; failing that: anytime, anywhere.

The prolific Bulgarian pianist Emile Naoumoff recorded both these works in the mid 2000s for French label Saphir (LVC1097), who subtitled their double-disc release 'Complete Works for Solo Piano' - Oxford Music Online notes at least some further Feuillets d'Album. There are some notable deviations in timings between Naoumoff and Lemelin, with the latter's accounts generally on the faster side. On Timpani, meanwhile, French pianist François Kerdoncouff has recorded La Maison dans les Dunes (1C1072) - that disc has the advantage of including Dupont's substantial Poème for piano quintet. On the same label, incidentally, can be found Dupont's 'Complete Songs' (Timpani 1C1089).

Back on ATMA, Lemelin's performance in these two demanding works is very impressive. He brings out the pathos, colour, humour and artistry in Dupont's writing with intelligence, passion and eloquence. Sound quality is very good. The CD booklet is a paragon of clarity, and can be downloaded/previewed for free here. The only quibble, really, is that this is officially a double-disc set with a price-tag that reflects that, even though it is only fifteen minutes longer than a single.

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Memorably colourful and rather beautiful, sometimes almost orchestral in effect.