Jean ROGER-DUCASSE (1873-1954)
Complete music for solo piano and piano duet
Martin Jones (piano), Adrian Farmer (2nd piano)
rec. Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth,
NIMBUS NI5927 [3 CDs: 68.36 + 65.10 + 51.51]
In his informative booklet note for this release Rhys Ward remarks that “exactly why the work of such an active and influential figure as Roger-Ducasse has fallen into obscurity is something of a mystery.” He largely answers his own question in the biographical details he supplies. Jean Roger-Ducasse, a pupil of Fauré, largely gave up composition after he took up teaching duties at the Paris Conservatoire after Fauré’s death. He then left Paris for Bordeaux on the outbreak of the Second World War, writing bitter letters complaining of his neglect to his former friends which served only to alienate the supporters he still had in Paris. The rise of Les Six and other iconoclasts of their generation into prominence on the French musical scene can hardly have helped his reputation. Before his death the growing influence in France of Schoenberg and Webern had effectively consigned his music to the sidelines. In the 1960s he was represented in the catalogues solely by his (not very idiomatic) orchestration of Satie’s Three pieces in the form of a pear recorded by Maurice Abravanel as part of his cycle of the composer’s orchestral music, but that had disappeared from the listings by the end of the 1970s — and was not included on the CD reissues of the material. Apart from a couple of short pieces, that was more or less it until Leif Segerstam recorded two CDs of his orchestral music for Marco Polo in the mid-1990s (8.223501 and 8.223641). Those too have now disappeared from the current catalogue, although they may well reappear on Naxos in due course ... as they should.
Martin Jones’s indefatigable exploration of the neglected byways of music has now lighted on Roger-Ducasse’s piano music written between 1899 and 1923. He has made handsome amends for the record companies’ previous neglect by letting us hear all of it. A few of the items, notably the early Barcarolle, have been available in the past as part of mixed recitals; but although Nimbus (with commendable caution) do not claim any of the works here as “first recordings” it does not appear than more than a handful of them have ever been available on disc before. The piano music itself forms a strange contrast to the orchestral music recorded by Segerstam on his deleted pair of Marco Polo discs. Whereas the latter is largely programmatic in form, and shows the definite influence of impressionism, the music originally written for piano generally eschews any titles beyond the basic descriptions of form. It is the influence of Fauré, rather than that of Debussy, which informs the writing.
The first two discs in this set give us a complete conspectus of Roger-Ducasse’s development as a composer for the piano from the first Barcarolle of 1906 to the Romance written a mere seventeen years later. The third disc, in which Martin Jones is joined by Adrian Farmer, gives us the works for two pianists including the Petite Suite, Prelude to a ballet and interlude from Au jardin de Marguerite all of which were included in their orchestral guise on the pair of Segerstam CDs. The latter two scores are here given in reductions for piano made by the composer. Interestingly enough the orchestration of the Petite Suite was undertaken much later, during the composer’s otherwise fallow years of the 1930s. Otherwise these works for piano duet cover a similarly limited period of time as the solo piano music, being written during the nineteen years between 1899 and 1918. Under the circumstances it is unsurprising that there is not a great deal of a sense of developing style in the music itself. Once Roger-Ducasse had established his basic idiom, which I suppose could be best described as ‘post-impressionist’, he clearly saw little reason to change it, although Adrian Farmer in another booklet note discerns signs of evolution which reflect the increasing “distilled” later music of Fauré.
Although Roger-Ducasse himself was reported to be an excellent pianist, his writing for the piano is far from straightforward or easy to accomplish in performance. Adrian Farmer describes the technique required as “ambitious” and notes that the composer clearly had very large hands capable of striking intervals of a tenth with ease and utilising chords of up to seven notes in one hand. Martin Jones, as one would expect, makes light of such problems; although the writing is clearly difficult, he allows the music to emerge with a sense of line and never simply as a technical exercise. The Variations on a Chorale (CD1, track 14), the longest single work on these discs, comes across as a unified whole and there are many felicities also in the shorter pieces. The study in A flat (CD2, track 1) has an impressive hieratic grandeur, too. Adrian Farmer refers to the scores as “frequently complex, densely written and highly dissonant” but I feel this not as a ‘problem’ but as a response to the style of the writing itself. It would be easy to exaggerate the sense of dissonance which is hardly any more extreme than in — to take a contemporaneous example — the Debussy Études. Indeed this is all highly accessible music, and it is clear that Roger-Ducasse does not deserve his current neglect. This indeed was the viewpoint adopted by those few reviewers who took notice of the Segerstam orchestral CDs at the time of their original release, and their opinions remain valid some twenty years later. Anybody who enjoys French music of the early twentieth century should thoroughly enjoy making the acquaintance of this excellent crafted, and superbly performed, music.
The music for two pianists included on the third disc is perhaps less impressive. Although it is a pleasure to hear the Petite Suite in its piano duet version — is the later orchestration really “popular” as Adrian Farmer describes it? — the réductions pour piano of the two programmatic works really benefit from the full orchestral treatment that Segerstam gave us. The three books of duet Études do not seem to rise far beyond their original purpose as a teaching aid although there cannot be many pedagogic pieces specifically written for the far from easy practice of piano duettists. Adrian Farmer is correct in his wry observation that the music “throws in every dirty trick in the duettists’ library.” The Bach transcription makes a rather odd sort of ending although it is very well done.
As with other encyclopaedic issues of this nature, it is probably best not to listen to all three of these CDs at one sitting – I spread my listening over a period of several days – and the music will not yield all its felicities at a single hearing. We should however be grateful to Martin Jones, Adrian Farmer and Nimbus for making this music available – and in such excellent performances and recordings, and so well presented. Their endeavours richly deserve to be rewarded with success.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Complete music for solo piano
Barcarolle [No. 1] (1906) [6.40]
Six Préludes (1907) [10.58]
Prélude (1913) [1.10]
Étude en sol (1914) [6.46]
Quatre Études (1915) [14.39]
Variations sur un Choral (1915) [15.22]
Étude en sixtes (1916) [8.08]
Étude en la (1916) [9.32]
Arabesque [No 1] (1917) [7.02]
Rhythmes (1917) [4.46]
Esquisses (1917) [7.08]
Arabesque No. 2 (1919) [4.25]
Sonorités (1919) [5.58]
Barcarolle No. 2 (1920) [8.56]
Barcarolle No. 3 (1921) [7.40]
Impromptu (1921) [5.03]
Chant de l’aube (1921) [4.25]
Romance (1923) [5.01]
Music for piano duet
Petite Suite (1899) [5.08]
Prélude d’un ballet (1910) [3.01]
Interlude Au jardin de Marguerite (1913) [11.06]
Études, Book I (1916) [7.08]
Études, Book II (1916) [10,51]
Études, Book III (1917) [6.02]
Passacaglia [J S Bach, BWV582] (1918) [8.34]