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Thťodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)
Violin Concerto in D minor [29:28]
Sonata for Violin & Piano [23:55]
Ballad for Violin & Piano [6:20]
Ingolf Turban (violin)
Lukas Maria Kuen (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Raoul GrŁneis
rec. 2014/16, SWR-Studio Kaiserslautern & Hans Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden
CPO 777932-2 [59:59]

As with many composers whose works are reviewed by MWI the name of this one will probably not be familiar to many readers. In fact, Thťodore Dubois achieved some early recognition by winning the Prix de Rome in 1861 and, for this, he received encouragement from no less a figure than Liszt. However, he is probably best remembered as a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire from 1871 (where his pupils included Dukas, Magnard, Ropartz and Schmitt) and as the director from 1896. Given that Dubois was a near contemporary of such luminaries as Bizet, Saint-SaŽns and Massenet it is probably fair to say that the competition his music suffered in the back end of the nineteenth century (in France alone) was fierce. Do we therefore have here the French equivalent of a Stanford or Parry? Probably not – at least not in terms of the influence he had on his students. In all the information I have been able to find about Dubois the ever-present suggestion is that he was an unsmiling arch-conservative who broke no new ground. His reign as director of the Conservatoire seems to have involved taking a hostile stance against the contemporary music of such composers as Wagner, Debussy and Ravel, whereby Dubois probably shot himself in the foot. In 1902 he forbade Conservatoire students to attend performances of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, but it was in 1905 that his faculty’s blatant attempt to prevent Ravel winning the Prix de Rome caused a scandal that forced him to bring forward his retirement. He was succeeded as director of the Conservatoire by Gabriel Faurť – who received a brief from the French government to modernise the institution.

There are, however, plenty of examples of reactionary composers who managed to produce some very listenable music. So what do we know of the output of Dubois? His compositional oeuvre was considerable - nine operas (six of which achieved performances), two ballets, three symphonies, several concertos, a small volume of chamber music and a large amount of sacred and organ music – but not so considerable as to prompt the superficial suspicion that quality was sacrificed for quantity. Moreover, a quick search shows that his works have achieved over fifty recordings. However, few of these works have been recorded more than once. The Violin Concerto is one of them and the present disc contains what may be only its second recording (review).

The concerto was dedicated to Ysaˇe and it appears to date from 1896 (some sources say 1894), although my first impression was of a pleasant-enough work that could have come from any time in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rather gushing booklet note remarks that “Dubois overstates the genre’s conventions as if in a textbook example”. There are, accordingly, three movements: Allegro, Adagio and Allegro giocoso. The first has a fairly arresting opening but the desirable conventions Dubois manages to avoid are those of producing any really memorable themes or developing the modest themes actually on offer convincingly. The development rather reminds me of the sort of material one finds in the more obscure concertos of Lalo and Bruch and even the booklet notes refer to this movement as “anonymous”. This description could also be given to the second movement. The notes make much of the Adagio’s “broadly arched and multi-coloured melody of powerful sweep” and plenty of similar puffery is offered but my feeling is that none of it can really be justified. The third movement opens with growling bass-strings and the soloist enters with a busy but somewhat faceless theme. Some commentators have remarked on similarities with the concertos of both Saint-SaŽns and Goldmark and this seems to me to be fair but, unlike the charming last movement of the Goldmark concerto, for example, this third movement lacks ingredients that make one sit up and take notice. The unusual addition of a “monumental” written-out cadenza doesn’t really help. I gave the whole piece a second hearing in case I was being harsh but this just reinforced my initial view. Ultimately, this is an agreeable work that goes through the various motions of the romantic virtuoso violin concerto but rather fails to deliver.

Dubois’ sole violin sonata follows and I feel this is rather better. The sonata is also in three movements and is dedicated to the great virtuoso, Henri Marteau. The opening Allegro appassionato movement here does have one or two memorable themes and I was struck by the many similarities with the violin sonatas of Saint-SaŽns - the piano parts of which I have attempted myself. The piano figurations here are rather more varied and interesting (if less effective) than, say, those in the corresponding movement of Saint-SaŽns’ first sonata. The similarities continue in the second movement (Andante quasi Adagio), where we get an atmospheric start, with the violin floating notes over a characterful piano accompaniment, and this recalls one or two elements of the Carnival of the Animals - interest being sustained by many artful changes of key. The concluding Allegro deciso con fuoco starts well and develops with a degree of variety, including some pizzicato passagework. This movement really does feel as if it’s going somewhere - despite being nearly sabotaged by two passages of accelerando that seem to serve no particular musical purpose. After a brief return to the sonata’s opening theme the work ends with a virtuoso final dash.

Next comes the short Ballad for violin and piano, which the writer of the booklet notes seems to think casts light on the composer’s progressive “true features”. Whilst this work starts and ends with a dreamily tender violin theme that is floated above a tremolando piano accompaniment – not unlike that in Szymanowski’s Fountain of Arethusa – this atmosphere is soon dispelled by a sometimes loud central scherzando passage that can sound completely at odds with it. Whilst I don’t think either of these characteristics provides any evidence for Dubois being “progressive” the piece is by no means bad. Dubois wrote a few other short works for violin and piano – including a Scherzetto and a Meditation and, in view of the fact that plenty of room remains on the disk, it is to be regretted that the opportunity was not taken to give us all of the composer’s works for violin here.

Performances are pretty good. I have only come across the violinist before on a Claves disc of little-known works of Respighi, which I enjoyed. Turban’s technique is slightly edgy (shades of a better-controlled Ivry Gitlis) - if not unacceptably so - and his intonation is very reliable. That said he does tend to play too loudly sometimes, not helped by a balance that spotlights him and makes him sound that bit more emphatic. I also have the distinct impression that soloist and orchestra attempt to compensate for the relative lack of interest in the concerto by stressing the dynamic contrasts, so there is a wide dynamic range here. Unfortunately the recording cannot quite cope with this: orchestral strings occasionally sound a tad thin and there is a suspicion of congestion that can make listening at higher volumes uncomfortable. The change of acoustic as we go from an orchestral to a chamber work is rather noticeable and the latter acoustic is very acceptable. In the chamber works both the balance and recording quality are better and the piano sounds splendid – although that is partly down to the high quality of the pianist’s contribution.

I haven’t been able to compare the two concerto recordings – the BNL disc is currently unavailable. That said, taking into account Jonathan’s comments, the present performance of the concerto is probably the one to have - despite minor sonic imperfections. As regards whether the composer’s neglect can be justified the jury remains out for now. The works presented here are of uneven quality but I shall be interested to hear more – particularly more of the chamber music.

Bob Stevenson


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