Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
La plainte, au loin, du faune [4:38]
Piano Sonata in E flat minor [42:30]
Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau [17:59]
Prélude élégiaque sur le nom de Haydn [4:55]
Hervé Billaut (piano, Steinway model D)
rec. 16-18 September 2013, chapel, Rochebonne castle (Theizé en Beaujolais)
MIRARE MIR242 [71:00]

The man who wrote L’Apprenti Sorcier deserves to be remembered as more than a one work composer although he made it hard for his potential admirers by publishing so little. There are only fifteen works, and he apparently abandoned or destroyed nearly as many. He was, in short, a perfectionist. Everything I have heard of this small output has been well worth hearing, and before I get on to this disc I should mention his symphony, his overture Polyeucte, his ballet La Péri and his wonderful opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue.

Here we have his two main works for piano along with two smaller ones. La plainte, au loin, du faune was written in 1920 as a tribute to Debussy, who had been his friend and who had died two years earlier. It does suggest Debussy, as one might expect, but also - and remarkably - it seems to me to anticipate the earlier piano works of Messiaen, who became a pupil of Dukas some years later. It a charming work which would be good for mystifying audiences as an encore piece.

The piano sonata has not been a popular genre in France, and I think Alkan was Dukas’ only significant predecessor when he wrote his sonata in 1901. A glance at the timings above show that this is a really big work: Dukas squared up to the challenge by writing what in effect is a late Beethoven sonata rethought in the idiom of César Franck. The first and last movement are each in sonata form and they both set out and develop long flowing themes with a great variety of texture and treatment. The slow movement has a deep peace. The booklet writer compares the scherzo third movement to Mendelssohn but to my ears there is nothing of that composer’s elfin gaiety and wistfulness but instead a massive and demanding étude in the manner of Alkan. I had long wanted to hear this work and I have been deeply impressed by it. It is a shame it is not better known but it is not surprising: not only is it very long but technically it is very demanding, and who is going to learn a long and difficult work which no one asks to hear because they haven’t heard it or heard of it. There is a further issue: it is not what people expect of French music, and it could be by a different composer from that of L’Apprenti Sorcier, which indeed Dukas became rather tired of.

The Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau is not a heaven-storming work like the Sonata but is still pretty substantial. The idea for the work probably came to Dukas from editing Rameau, to whom he was devoted. The theme is the minuet from the Suite in D from Rameau’s second book of harpsichord pieces (the 1724 set). This is followed by eleven variations, before the Interlude and Finale. There is nothing remotely baroque about it; nor do I hear much influence of Franck either. To me the variations sound Germanic, as if Dukas had been listening to Brahms’ Handel set, and some of his sound variously close to Brahms, the Beethoven of the Diabelli Variations, and to Liszt and Schumann. The Interlude is more adventurous in style, not in the direction of impressionism but rather towards the ambiguous tonality of Busoni. After all this solid fare the Finale turns out to be playful and cheerful – for the listener that is, as it sounds very difficult – in a rather Mendelssohnian way, though there is a brief moment of impressionist charm to tease you just before the end.

Just as the Variations are not reminiscent of Rameau, nor is the short Prélude élégiaque sur le nom de Haydn in the least like Haydn. This is a meditative work rather in the manner of the Interlude from the previous work.

Hervé Billaut was a new name to me but he has built up a considerable reputation in France, which he certainly deserves. He has also made a number of recordings, of which that of Albeniz’s Iberia has been particularly praised, though you will have to order these from France or Amazon UK if you want to follow his career. He has superb technical command but also a rarer quality: he can tell a story through the music so he drew me irresistibly on. I was reminded of the late Charles Rosen, another pianist with a fine technique and a real intellectual grip on the works he played. Billaut has apparently been playing the sonata, and no doubt the other works here, for years, so these are also deeply considered and mature interpretations.

I found the recording a little difficult to get to sound right: it is full and deep but tends to be clangorous in climaxes. I had the feeling the microphone was very slightly too close to the instrument. The variations in the Rameau work are not separately banded, which I found a little inconvenient. There is a booklet with notes in three languages which gives the background and some interesting quotations from Cortot, d’Indy and Dukas himself. There are other recordings of these works, and I should mention in particular one by Hamelin of the sonata which has been well received (here) but which is not coupled with other Dukas works but this will do very well. I would not want my slight reservations to deter anyone from getting to know these impressive works.

Stephen Barber

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