The French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was not particularly prolific, his intense self-criticism restricting the number of works he allowed to be published. His fame rests on a single orchestral work L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) (1897).
Of his piano works there are just seven, four of which French pianist Hervé Billaut http://hervebillaut.com has chosen to record for Mirare www.mirare.fr to celebrate Dukas’ 150th Anniversary.
Hervé Billaut graduated from the Conservatory of Paris at the age of sixteen with the highest distinctions, gaining numerous awards including the Grand Prize at the prestigious Long -Thibaud Piano Competition in 1983.
Since then, he has performed all over the world, playing at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, the Salle Pleyel in Paris or the Teàtro Real in Madrid as well as in Latin America or in the Far East. He has worked with the Orchestre National de France, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic and the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and played under such conductors as John Eliot Gardiner and Yehudi Menuhin.
This new disc for Mirare opens with Dukas’ La plainte, au loin, du faune… (The distant lament of the faun…) It was written in 1920, two years after the death of Debussy as a tribute to his late friend. It opens with a repeated note around which the music develops. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece which Hervé Billaut shapes quite magically. He has a crystalline clarity to his touch with exquisite phrasing. One can just detect hints of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.
The Sonate en mi bémol mineur (Sonata in E-flat minor) that dates from 1899–1900 is a substantial work lasting around forty three minutes.
Modérément vite has a fast, forward moving theme to which Billaut brings a real sense of urgency. It slows to a more meditative section but then the music begins to billow up again, this pianist providing a great feeling of drama and tension as he heads to passages of passion and fire with some remarkably fine, virtuosic passages, before quietening in the passages that lead to the resigned coda. In four movements Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu opens quietly and gently with some lovely little harmonic touches. The music slowly finds its way around the diffuse theme with Billaut revealing so many of Dukas’ fine ideas. He brings finely controlled dynamics. All is beautifully phrased, quite exquisite in its gentle, yet heartfelt emotion. This is an impressively shaped movement with a peaceful coda. Dukas develops his material impressively in a sonata that really deserves to be heard in the concert hall
The Vivement, avec légèreté lifts one out of one’s seat with a dynamic, forceful opening that then fairly rattles ahead with Billaut providing some impressively fine playing, impeccable phrasing with a tremendously light and agile touch, bringing out so many fine little details within the tempestuous texture. There is a lovely, thoughtful beautifully laid out, slower central section before the opening tempo returns to dash forwards before slowing for the lovely coda.
Resolute chords also open the third movement Très lent – Animé before developing and slowly revealing the theme, often stormy and passionate. Billaut’s wonderful phrasing and clarity help to reveal the many wonders in this movement. At times one can sense Liszt (of the B minor sonata) behind certain passages as this music moves through moments of varying tempi and demanding writing. Dukas packs so much into this thirteen minute movement. Here is a dazzling display of pianism yet Billaut never misses any moments of subtle beauty or expressiveness. There is a brief quieter and slower respite that quickly leads to the coda.
Two years after the sonata, Dukas wrote the substantial Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau. It takes the penultimate piece from Rameau’s Suite in D from the second book of harpsichord works. It opens with a Menuet et Variations de l à XI (minuet and eleven variations). There is a lovely little minuet that soon moves through a series of fine variations, at turns gentle and flowing, dramatic and forceful, harmonically forward looking, fast and light, even a rather gloomy, dark variation where the theme is hardly recognisable. Billaut’s lovely attention to phrasing and dynamics and, indeed, colours brings some beautifully rewarding results before we are taken straight into the Interlude where the theme is slowly ruminated on, building as it develops and running into the Finale, a buoyant and jaunty variation. There is a moment of more relaxed crystalline purity centrally before the music heads toward the coda that, nevertheless, slows before the resolute final chords.
Prelude élégiaque (sur le nom de Haydn) (Elegiac prelude on the name of Haydn) is built around the musical notation representing the letters of Haydn’s name. It opens quietly as Dukas spells out Haydn’s name with Billaut bringing a quiet dignity to the music, a stateliness tinged with nostalgic charm. There are some lovely free, fluent passages as Dukas develops the music around the opening notes but, overall, it is a contemplative work, from which this pianist draws many lovely moments before the gentle conclusion.
This is an outstanding release. The Dukas sonata is, in particular, a very impressive work played with authority and great accomplishment by Hervé Billaut.
The excellent recording was made in the Church of Le Château de Rochebonne, Rhône, France where Billaut is Artistic Director of the festival, Les Rendez-Vous de Rochebonne www.rdv-rochebonne.fr that he founded with friends. There are informative booklet notes