Jean ROGER-DUCASSE (1873-1954)
Barcarolle No.1 in D flat major (1906) [5:57]
Etudes: No.1 in G sharp minor (1914) [5:47], No.2 in A flat major (1916) [9:15], No.3 in G flat major ‘en sixtes’ (1916) [7:08]
Arabesque No.1 in F sharp major (1917) [6:50]
Arabesque No.2 in C major (1919) [4:08]
Rythmes (1917) [6:36]
Sonorités (1918) [5:00]
Barcarolle No.2 in G flat major (1920) [8:26]
Barcarolle No.3 in F major (1921) [8:17]
Patrick Hemmerlé (piano)
rec. 2018, Église Évangélique Saint-Marcel, Paris
MELISM MLS-CD-013 [67:13]
Many readers of this review may know Jean Roger-Ducasse for a single composition: Pastorale (1909) for organ, his only work in that genre, a showpiece that often appears in recitals in the United Kingdom and the United States. So, a few words about the composer will be useful.
Jean Roger-Ducasse was born in Bordeaux, France on 18 April 1873. After a standard education, he studied at the Paris Conservatory between 1892 and 1895 with Gabriel Fauré for composition. He received the second prize in the 1902 Prix de Rome competition. His cantata Alycone beat Ravel into fourth place. In 1910 Roger-Ducasse was appointed inspector of the teaching of singing in Parisian schools. By 1924 he had succeeded Fauré at the Conservatory and later, in 1935, succeeded Paul Dukas as professor of orchestration.
Roger-Ducasse’s musical style was influenced by the polyphonic textures of Bach as well as the music of Fauré. There are hints of impressionism in much of his music, yet the main thrust is post-Romantic. The piano pieces are typically virtuosic, written very often in a trajectory from Chopin through Liszt and unsurprisingly Fauré. Other influences must include Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin. Major works include the choral Au Jardin de Marguerite, (1901-1905), the Suite française (1907), the symphonic poem with women’s voices Ulysse et les sirènes (1937) and the opera Cantegril, comédie lyrique (1931). There were several chamber works, songs, and piano pieces. Jean Roger Ducasse died in Le-Taillan-Médoc in Gironde on 19 July 1954.
I will group the three Barcarolles here. The First Barcarolle in D flat major is modelled on Chopin’s exemplar (op.60). It is a lovely specimen of the Venetian Gondolier’s song, which ends quietly as the last tourists return to their hotels. The second, in G flat major, displays varied moods supported by complex figurations and subtly changing dynamics. It builds to a massive climax, which is surely out of place in the Lagoon? It is a long number, pianistically demanding but ultimately satisfying for the listener. In the third Barcarolle in F major, the gondolier is no longer in the Lagoon. The liner notes suggest that here the composer has looked beyond the Lido to the Adriatic. Certainly, it is hardly advisable to take a gondola into these often tranquil, sometimes stormy waters. But this changeable music may represent Roger-Ducasse’s personal feelings and emotions. It ends quietly, and on a positive note. \I guess it is about as far away from the usual form of this title as I can imagine. All three Barcarolles are valuable pieces that demand our attention and move our hearts and minds-especially if we know La Serenissima.
The three Etudes are unbelievable. Luckily, I was able to follow them in the scores. They are reminiscent of similar piano studies by Chopin and Liszt. Interestingly, Patrick Hemmerlé writes that these are virtually impossible to play exactly as written so the ‘goal of the interpreter is to approach as near as possible, compromising where he sees fit, without putting into jeopardy the musical integrity of the works’. Certainly, the first impression on looking at the sheet music, is that the composer has sprinkled a box of notes and accidentals all over the pages. Intensely chromatic writing is everywhere, whether in the harmony or the counterpoint. Yet, occasionally, Roger-Ducasse eases back and stays in a key for several bars. The music is sometimes written on three staves, presumably to disentangle the parts, and make it easier to read! The Etude No.1 in G sharp minor nods towards Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de Nuit. It is a delightfully atmospheric and may reflect a snow-covered landscape or an unruffled lake. The second Etude in A flat major may be beyond playable. The right hand is required to play double notes for nearly 10 minutes. Meanwhile the left hand infiltrates the progress with fragments of melody. I agree with the liner notes that this music suggests water: the sea or maybe a flowing stream. It is a masterwork of impressionistic writing. Finally, the Etude No.3 in G flat major (not D flat major as per liner note text) is a study in sixths. There is nothing pedantic about this remarkably haunting and colourful music.
I loved the two Arabesques. The first, in F sharp major, works its way through a myriad of moods and rhythmically supple explorations. The relatively straightforward melody is played off against a bewildering array of complex accompanying figurations. Once again, the pianism of this stunning piece may be off the scale of playable. I just do not know how Patrick Hemmerlé finds all the notes! The Arabesque No.2 in C major is also varied in atmosphere and sometimes seems inspired by the impressionist school of piano music. The tone of this music is one of humour and charm. Both Arabesques demand to be played as a set.
Rythmes (1917) is full of Spanish (or at least Mediterranean) light. It is a patchwork of rhythmic changes, both between bars and sometimes between hands. Listen to the strumming of the guitars on a sultry Iberian evening exemplified by the repeated notes. This is my favourite track on this CD. Equally evocative is Debussian Sonorités which is a nocturne complete with Les parfums de la nuit. It is a perfect partner to the previous sun-infused music of Rythmes and must surely be played as a set. Unfortunately, the record company has got these two tracks mixed up on the actual disc.
I have not heard the main competing version of Roger-Ducasse’s piano music issued on Nimbus NI 5927 in 2014. That release includes the complete solo piano and piano duets played by Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer. It was reviewed here
by Paul Corfield Godfrey. Nor have I heard Joel Hastings on the Grand Piano
label (GP 724). There is a little overlap of repertoire here.
Patrick Hemmerlé’s playing is second to none. He negotiates the varying technical difficulties and rhythmic intricacies of all these pieces with grace and interpretative magic. The recording is ideal for this music, which is often intimate in mood. The liner notes (in French and English) provide an excellent introduction and deserve to be studied before listening to the CD. The booklet is well-illustrated with several photographs of the composer, but I wonder if we really needed the double page colour spread of the pianist with his hands in the air! The packaging is cardboard and plastic, which always seems to me second best: with mine, the edges and corners soon get bashed.
I am delighted that Patrick Hemmerlé has begun a complete cycle of Roger-Ducasse’s piano music, and I hope that will include the works for piano duet. With a bit of luck, Volume 2 will not be too long in the offing.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf