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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) [11:17]
Velléda: cantata (1888) [30:18]
Polyeucte; overture (1891) [14:40]
Chantal Santon (soprano): Julien Dran (tenor); Jean-Manuel Candenot (bass-baritone)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. April 2011, live, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice; May 2012, live, l’abbaye de l’Épau (Polyeucte)
MUSICALES ACTES SUD ASM12 [55:54]

François-Xavier Roth and his period instrument orchestra Les Siècles continue their joint enterprise in exploring repertoire of the early-twentieth and – as here – the late-nineteenth centuries. The focus is exclusively on Dukas and it serves the valuable purpose of exploring repertoire that will be all but unknown except to the most dedicated student of the composer’s works.

That doesn’t apply to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the one work that will guarantee aural titillation and excitement, or should in a good performance. This is more than good – it’s excellent. Rhythms bite, the music is richly characterised, and the sonorities of the period instruments - especially the winds – vests an individual patina. When the low winds get chattery and sepulchral, you’re grateful to both band and conductor for exploring these colours in this way. Something definably individual emerges, even in so well-known a work as this.

Inventive and colourful though this is, it’s not enough to build a programme on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice alone. The companion works are the thing that will tip the balance, and for that to happen it will depend very much on your levels of inquisitiveness into the earlier part of Dukas’ work-list. This principally relates to the cantata for soprano, tenor and bass, to a text by Fernand Beissier, called Velléda. It was composed for the 1888 Prix de Rome, a competition Dukas failed to win, and it attests to his preoccupation with form and orchestration at the time. Whilst the programme notes gently allude to some infelicities in the score, we can agree that it’s a manifestly interesting and engaging piece of writing. The five-minute Prelude has many a deft moment, with some gorgeous lines for the flute, chromatic string writing - shades of Wagner, obviously, from time to time - and an unfolding sense that we are listening to a tone poem evolving. The woody flute tone is especially beguiling in this context. The exchanges between the singers are splendid and tenor Julien Dran emerges as the star of the show – he has a real French sound, focused and forward, and capable of lyric legato, even negotiating the quasi-operatic arias with aplomb. He’s a stylish artist. Soprano Chantal Santon is another committed singer, but her vibrato is wider and is less centre-of-the-note and thus their exchanges are not ideally balanced. The smallest of the roles is taken by the bass-baritone Jean-Manuel Candenot whose diction is conspicuously good. This early cantata is well worth hearing.

To finish there’s an overture; Polyeucte, composed in 1891. This is an extensive piece, at nearly fifteen minutes, but it gives Dukas plenty of time to vest in it powerful drama supported by felicitous orchestral colour. It’s a species of Lisztian tone poem, Dukas having built on the experience of the Prelude of Velléda and other intervening works. There’s a strong melancholic string cantilena and excellent brass writing. Here’s another Dukas work too long on the back-burner.

All three are richly brought to life by Roth and his forces. All come from live concerts, at two venues. Here’s another excellently performed and recorded Roth-directed disc.

Jonathan Woolf