François-Xavier Roth and his period instrument orchestra Les Siècles
continue their joint enterprise in exploring repertoire of the
early-twentieth and – as here – the late-nineteenth centuries. The focus is
exclusively on Dukas and it serves the valuable purpose of exploring
repertoire that will be all but unknown except to the most dedicated student
of the composer’s works.
That doesn’t apply to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
; the one work
that will guarantee aural titillation and excitement, or should in a good
performance. This is more than good – it’s excellent. Rhythms bite, the
music is richly characterised, and the sonorities of the period instruments
- especially the winds – vests an individual patina. When the low winds get
chattery and sepulchral, you’re grateful to both band and conductor for
exploring these colours in this way. Something definably individual emerges,
even in so well-known a work as this.
Inventive and colourful though this is, it’s not enough to build a
programme on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
alone. The companion works
are the thing that will tip the balance, and for that to happen it will
depend very much on your levels of inquisitiveness into the earlier part of
Dukas’ work-list. This principally relates to the cantata for soprano, tenor
and bass, to a text by Fernand Beissier, called Velléda.
composed for the 1888 Prix de Rome, a competition Dukas failed to win, and
it attests to his preoccupation with form and orchestration at the time.
Whilst the programme notes gently allude to some infelicities in the score,
we can agree that it’s a manifestly interesting and engaging piece of
writing. The five-minute Prelude has many a deft moment, with some gorgeous
lines for the flute, chromatic string writing - shades of Wagner, obviously,
from time to time - and an unfolding sense that we are listening to a tone
poem evolving. The woody flute tone is especially beguiling in this context.
The exchanges between the singers are splendid and tenor Julien Dran emerges
as the star of the show – he has a real French sound, focused and forward,
and capable of lyric legato, even negotiating the quasi-operatic arias with
aplomb. He’s a stylish artist. Soprano Chantal Santon is another committed
singer, but her vibrato is wider and is less centre-of-the-note and thus
their exchanges are not ideally balanced. The smallest of the roles is taken
by the bass-baritone Jean-Manuel Candenot whose diction is conspicuously
good. This early cantata is well worth hearing.
To finish there’s an overture; Polyeucte,
composed in 1891. This
is an extensive piece, at nearly fifteen minutes, but it gives Dukas plenty
of time to vest in it powerful drama supported by felicitous orchestral
colour. It’s a species of Lisztian tone poem, Dukas having built on the
experience of the Prelude of Velléda
and other intervening works.
There’s a strong melancholic string cantilena and excellent brass writing.
Here’s another Dukas work too long on the back-burner.
All three are richly brought to life by Roth and his forces. All come from
live concerts, at two venues. Here’s another excellently performed and
recorded Roth-directed disc.