1989, Music

Variations, interlude et final; Prelude elegiaque; La plainte, au loin, du faune; Sonate (1989) by Paul Dukas, performed by Margaret Fingerhut

This is a quite surprising collection. Dukas – who apparently destroyed much of his output – used to be somewhat dismissed when it came to his piano music but I find what’s here – both the famous sonata variations and the less famous other two works – to be great, if not exactly life-changing.

It’s fortunate that there are pianists willing to take risks and record things that are not considered standard. We don’t need 8 million versions of the Beethoven sonatas. We do need people to find stuff that wasn’t necessarily fully appreciated in its day and bring it to light.

Fine stuff.


Variations, Interlude and Finale on a Theme by Rameau (1902)

  • Menuet [Theme]
  • Variation I. Tendrement
  • Variation II. Assez vif, très rythmé
  • Variation III. Sans hâte, délicatement
  • Variation IV. Un peu animé, avec légèreté
  • Variation V. Lent
  • Variation VI. Modéré
  • Variation VII. Assez vif
  • Variation VIII. Très modéré
  • Variation IX. Animé
  • Variation X. Sans lenteur, bien marqué
  • Variation XI. Sombre, assez lent
  • Interlude
  • Finale (Variation XII). Modérément animé – Vif

These variations are a remarkable work – they walk a fine line between Romantic (perhaps even Classical) conservatism and the emerging modernism. Unlike much of the Romantic variations I am familiar with Dukas moves way far away from the theme. I detect hints of really late Romantic music here too, with the music straining to stay in key. He also drastically alters tempo, which is much more common.

Certainly a very remarkable work and hard to believe that it had fallen out of favour over the years.

Prélude élégiaque sur le nom de Haydn (1909)

Celebrating Haydn in 1909 must have been a pretty iconoclastic and idiosyncratic thing to do. I feel like Haydn was pretty much the further thing from vogue then (though I could be very wrong about that).

I’d say I know Haydn somewhat well at this point, but I’m not sure that I hear his muse in this very impressionistic elegy (or prelude to an elegy or what have you). Rather I hear the spirit of the time, albeit a little more conservative. Maybe that says more about me than the music. Maybe I should have listened to Haydn right before I listened to this again.

But this is a nice piece of music. I would not use the word elegiac to describe it, but I like it.

La plainte, au loin, du faune… (1920)

This late Dukas piece is interesting for its insistent, repetitive left hand. (I think it’s the left hand.) I honestly cannot recall another piece of its era (or the previous era) that features such a repetition. It’s like proto minimalist. (Though the variations the right hand is performing are the furthest thing from minimalism.) I’m writing this a long time since a proper immersion in the music of the early 20th century and so I might be a little over-the-top with my praise, but to me this is a real standout. An utterly unique thing.

Piano Sonata in E-flat minor (1901)

Some say the Sonata is the lesser of Dukas’ two most famous piano compositions. It is certainly the more Romantic, in its volume and its passion, and the general sense of hugeness one gets from listening to it. And the Variations really are fantastic.

But I think such a comparison under-sells the Sonata, which is a very different beast (and an earlier composition, by a little bit). It’s weird to me that this composition had a lot of admirers when it was published and first performed and then was mostly forgotten. It’s one of those late Romantic works that manages to be both challenging in its modernity but traditional enough to lull you in so that you don’t think you are hearing something boundary-pushing. This seems to be, with my limited knowledge of Dukas, to be a Dukas specialty. (As well, it must be said, as a hallmark of the music of the era). Yes, the Sonata is over-the-top, but so much Romantic music is. It has all these little unconventionalities that sound like they are from other eras (including the future) or from other genres of music not normally accessed in piano sonatas.

Honestly, I think it’s great.

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