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Theodore DUBOIS (1837–1924)
Quintet in F for violin, oboe, viola, cello and piano (1905) [27:13]
Meditation for violin, oboe and organ (1900) [3:28]
String Quartet No 1 in E-flat (1909) [32:31]
Meditation-Priere for oboe, strings, harp and organ, Op 17 (1869) [6:11]
Petits reves d’enfants for string quartet (1903) [3:57]
Deux pieces en forme canonique for oboe, cello and strings (1901) [5:21]
Lajos Lencses (oboe), Gustavo Surgik (violin), Leo Lencses (cello), Carole Dubois (piano), Antal Varadi (organ), Renie Yamahata (harp)
Quatuor Parisii
Budapest Strings
rec. 2010-20, Kammermusik Studio, SWR, Stuttgart, and Christus Konig Kirche, Fellbach Oeffingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany

Pity poor Theodore Dubois. He so much wanted to be remembered for one thing, but ended up being remembered for another. And now, with this utterly delightful CD, we learn that his real genius lay somewhere else altogether. Ambitions to be an opera composer were largely thwarted by his relatively simple outlook on life, coloured by his humble origins and strong moral sense; not for him those opera plots where people kill each other, celebrate anti-social behaviours, or enjoy illicit sexual encounters. He was never able to shake off – either in life or posthumously – his association with the church and the organ, and is probably today best known as a composer of sacred music, and as, of course, Director of the Paris Conservatoire from 1896 to 1905 where, in the words of Groves Dictionary, “believing that students should have a solid understanding of theory before studying modern masters, he published a number of theoretical treatises. Praised for their clarity and precision and translated into other languages, some are still used today.” Those characteristics of clarity and precision shine through this programme of his chamber music, an aspect of his compositional output which has largely remained unexplored yet, as this CD shows, was a field in which he was particularly gifted.

TV producers on the lookout for the perfect off-the-shelf theme music for one of those Sunday evening period-dramas will find everything they could possibly ask for in the opening bars of Dubois’s Quintet. Here, a deliciously logical and self-contained oboe theme encapsulates that sense of manicured beauty found in the gardens of stately homes in full, summer bloom with just the faintest whiff of nostalgia and the promise of passionate encounters to come. It’s a deliciously coherent and perfectly formed movement which builds on that opening theme in a totally satisfying way, giving all five instruments plenty of time to bask in the afternoon sunshine. The second movement is similarly logical, coherent, and utterly satisfying, but here we have more than a hint of the disarming melodic insouciance of Faure; the ending, I should add, is truly endearing. A warm viola solo singing out a solemn, hymn-like theme, with a hint of Elgar, opens the graceful third movement, the music of which finds me recalling that verse from Tennyson’s Maud, (“I kiss’d her slender hand/She took the kiss sedately;/Maud is not seventeen, /But she is tall and stately.”). The finale is a tautly constructed, firmly-restrained display of gymnastic energy, full of unequivocal gestures and neatly-tailored touches, and it epitomises the character of Dubois’s music – elegant, controlled, logical and utterly satisfying.

The lovely Meditation is one of the few pieces on this disc which is fairly well-known; as well it might be, for it is a charming, beautiful, and graceful piece, in which violin and oboe intertwine lovingly over a calm organ accompaniment.

In 1871 Dubois was one of the founders of the Societe Nationale, and this seems to have ignited his hitherto dormant interest in purely instrumental music. It was almost 20 years, however, before he wrote his first string quartet (he was to write another nine years later). The first movement is, perhaps surprisingly, urgent, and dramatic, with stormy outbursts and a level of energy which, in Dubois terms, verges on the unrestrained. It also contains some unusually adventurous harmonic shifts, and towards the end seems to wander into surprisingly labyrinthine territory. It is all played, however, with wonderful energy and elan by Quatuor Parisii. Violinist Arnaud Vallin sets off on a spiky and gloriously skipping dance which launches the gloriously perky second movement. If some of the harmonies seemed daring in the first movement, Dubois has certainly let his harmonic hair down here, and there is one lovely upward glissando (0:48) which is pure musical silliness. The third movement, which again recalls Faure, is pure tragedy, with a keening violin melody underpinned by teardrop chords. The gentle central episode, in the major key and marked “piu animato”, moves slightly in the direction of Dubois’ sacred music, but is too short-lived to have any lasting effect on the overriding mood of tragedy which pervades the movement. William Melton’s heavily analytical booklet notes describe the last movement as “blistering” and observes its “rhythmic tumult”. He is right in both observations. It goes along at an absolutely cracking pace – and full praise to the collective virtuosity of the Parisii’s for such invigorating playing – opening with an agitated conversation between first violin and cello above rattling triplets from the inner strings, and only occasionally breaking off from its vivacious progress to look back on ideas from the earlier movements. The first String Quartet was not Dubois’ first venture into the realm of string quartet writing. In 1903 he had composed two short, sweet and endearing Reves d’enfants for string quartet. Full praise, again, to the Parisii Quartet for delivering this delicate and simple music with such deep affection.

As an organist working with an orchestra, I have performed the Meditation-Priere numerous times with colleagues who were violinists and harpists, but it appears on this disc for the first time in a version which supplements the solo violin with oboe and a larger string ensemble. It was prepared, apparently, for the famous concerts arranged at the Paris Trocadero by Guilmant. Written for another famous Paris concert series – the Concerts Colonne – the Deux pieces en forme canonique is a duet for oboe and cello supported by a string ensemble. Father and son Lajos and Leo Lencses are the soloists here, supported by the Budapest Strings, and highly eloquent and sensitive they all are in a performance of two neat and elegant pieces which nicely combine a certain academic confidence with hints of more intimate emotions. It provides a most fitting conclusion to a disc of delightful charms.

Marc Rochester

In the original version of my review, I commented on a significant problem with the sound: "a great deal of annoying background sound, a considerable amount of muffling of the detail and distortion of the sound, and the balance and focus is never quite right".

We have been contacted by Toccata Classics, who were aware of this issue in the first pressing, which was not released for sale. The problem was corrected before release, but it seems that our review copy came from the first batch.

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