“Prix de Rome” – Volume 5:
Paul Dukas: Les Sirènes  – La Fête des myrtes  – Sémélé  – Pensée des morts  – Hymne au soleil  – L’Ondine et le Pêcheur  – Velléda  – Polyeucte  – Villanelle (arr. Odette Metzneger) 
Catherine Hunold  (Soprano), Marianne Fiset (Soprano) , Chantal Santon-Jeffery (Soprano) , Kate Aldrich (Mezzo-soprano) , Marie Kalinine [1,2] (Mezzo-soprano), Cyrille Dubois (Tenor) [2, 4, 5], Frédéric Antoun (Tenor) , Tassis Christoyannis (Baritone) , Andrew Foster-Williams (Baritone-bass) , Soloists of Brussels Philharmonic [1, 2, 3], Flemish Radio Choir [1, 2, 4, 5], Hans van der Zanden (Chorus master), Brussels Philharmonic, Hervé Niquet (Conductor)
Recording: La Salle Flagey, Brussels (May 2014 [6-8], August 2014 [1-5], June 2015 ) – 102’09
2 CDs Ediciones Singulares # ES1021 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Book in French and English
It seems Paul Dukas’ legacy is left only with the fabulous symphonic poem, L’Apprenti sorcier (1897), and to some extent, the ballet, La Péri (1911.) Dukas wasn’t a musical wunderkind, but his pianistic proficiencies allowed him to enter the Paris Conservatoire in 1881. When the highly ambitious Parisian failed to win the Prix de Rome, Dukas eventually resigned from the Conservatoire in 1889 to work as critic and freelance composer. The former profession likely opened his exposure to a myriad of styles and flavors particularly that of Richard Wagner which likely sunk his prospects of garnering France’s most coveted award.
Dukas’ persuasions teetered on bordering between emerging schools of thought at the turn-of-the century: akin to a musical version of Doctors Without Borders, he neither embraced nor abhorred the Gallic conservative arena nor paid unquenchable allegiances to the progressive movement. In a sense, Dukas could be described as a musicien diplomatique by bridging French transitional styles. Sadly, Paul Dukas was his own worst critic, enough so, that he destroyed a great many manuscripts during the latter part of his life. This, therefore, places greater importance on his brilliances of orchestral brio via conduits of cantatas, choral works and musical symphonies in particular; several of the selections have been seldom heard. Hervé Niquet harnesses the transformer, then pulls the Brussels Philharmonic switch to electrify the music with dazzling lustrousness and percussive values.
Dukas was exceptional by way of musically depicting descriptive texts brought forth by a great many literary authors. An aqueous medium opens both CDs, the first featuring Marie Kalinine’s wholesome mezzo voice in Les Sirènes (1889.) Its undulating waves, expressed through musical sweeps, brings to mind vestiges of Massenet’s Le Mage (1889-1890) and Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui (1887) though Kalinine trends toward shrill in high notes. Théophile Gautier’s writings paint a mature Dukas in his L’Ondine et le Pêcheur with its ethereal Debussyian attitude. The unusually high tessitura emphasizes a mystically melodic state, but Chantal Santon-Jeffery appears to be struggling and suffocating inside her own pool of notes thereby weighing down the overall beauty of the Mélodie.
La Fête des myrtes and Hymne au soleil similarly capture majestic grandeur with dialoguing between full chorus and solo singers. Brussels Philharmonic’s brass entrée into the Fête is in excellent form despite the chorus’ loosened synchronization responding to Kalinine’s brevis reply. Cyrille Dubois’ tenor solo softens Lamartine’s lofty poetic resolve in the somber-ridden Pensée des morts with its tasteful mixture of harp and wind accompagnato and a cappella voices.
In 1891 Paul Dukas returned from military service at which time he composed his Polyeucte which best represents his Wagnerian influences. Cellos establish core values within the first of two themes, La Foi, in a weighty, rather unusually lengthy overture. Niquet pries away at the instruments to re-awaken the highly dramatic score during the second idée, L’Amour de Pauline, with its jumping intensities and wildly tutti fortissimo commentaries. Furthermore, Niquet exceeds in persuading by swelling the agitation of the two notions.
Knowing the Académie’s contrarian beliefs in Germanic saturation as it pertains to French musical decorum, it’s ironic that success found its way to Dukas in 1888 with his cantata, Velléda. Composed of motifs de rappel (leitmotifs), they first reveal themselves (Velléda’s signature) from a purely orchestral point-of-view (“Prélude”.) But the beautifully melodic line later returns through Marianne Fiset’s occasionally impuissant, wavering timbre. Frédéric Antoun’s register establishes a formative Roman love for the druidess. Dukas had a winner with this piece of fine dramaturgy which continues in a downward spiral by adding the role of Segenax, Velléda’s father, here sung with unrelenting and uncompromising ire by Andrew Foster-Williams though he loses reach in the lowest of notes. Not as elaborative in detail as the other whirling composition, Sémélé, it certainly has the power to quickly template inside the listener’s head.
Equally magnanimous is the histrionic piece, Sémélé, with its striking lyrical touches, angry tapestry and diluted Wagnerian infections. It’s interesting to assess the reason why this cantata never received a justly deserved prize by the Académie in 1889: difficulty in the vocal parts. The selection de choix could dispel this argument for here we have three highly accomplished artists portraying their parts with equal power and equal acuity. Tassis Christoyannis’ Jupiter is a buttery gem, Kate Aldrich reigns deep in her richly tonal vocabulary to elicit the foreboding vengeances set forth against the brassy edging of Catherine Hunold’s title role. Again, we hear a Dukas rooted by Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (1877) with anticipations of Massenet’s Le Mage. In places Paul Dukas’ piece depicts a quasi grand opéra with its wonderful abrasiveness and dreamy voyages.
The creativity stemming from Paul Dukas is mighty and worthy of attention. Thankfully, we have this larger compendium, capitalizing on his works outside the expectant L’Apprenti sorcier. It definitely deserves a visit for audiences attuned to late 19th century French compositions.
Ediciones Singulares’ Thérèse
Ediciones Singulares’ Le Mage
Ediciones Singulares’ Théodore Gouvy œuvres
Ediciones Singulares’ Les Barbares
Ediciones Singulares’ ”Portraits” Volume 2: Works by Théodore Dubois
Ediciones Singulares’ Herculanum
Palazzetto Bru Zane Website