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Gabriel DUPONT (1878-1914)
La maison dans les dunes (1907-09) [44:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images, Book 1 (1905) [15:50]
Images, Book 2 (1907) [13:45]
Severin von Eckardstein (piano)
rec. 2017, St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK
ARTALINNA ATL-A020 [73:50]

The pairing of Claude Debussy and Gabriel Dupont is apposite. Both composers were French, roughly contemporary, and both died prematurely. Sadly, in Dupont's case he was only thirty-six and, with only a small compositional output, he has faded from collective memory, unjustly in my view. This year we have commemorated the centenary of Debussy's death, and the resulting bountiful cache of recordings has been most welcome. I have had the pleasure of reviewing a couple. However, it is Dupont's La Maison dans les dunes which is the main focus of my interest. I have never heard it before, but this initial encounter has been a revelation. This suite of ten pieces, evoking the sea, wind and bracing outdoors, imbued with luminous hues and haunting melodies, has been a breathtaking discovery.

Dupont was born in Caen in northern France in 1878. Music must have loomed large in his early years. His father, an organist and small-time composer, gave the young Gabriel his first lessons. Eventually he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Jules Massenet and Charles-Marie Widor. Progress was rapid. In 1901 he took second prize at the Prix de Rome behind André Caplet but ahead of Maurice Ravel. He later won first prize at the Sonzogno competition with an opera score La Cabrera. It was shortly afterwards that he was struck down by tuberculosis, a disease that would, from then on, accompany him throughout the rest of his short life. He finally succumbed in Le Vésinet on the evening of 1 August 1914, the cusp of the First World War.

La maison dans les dunes (The House on the Dunes) is one of two piano suites Dupont composed. It comes four years after the first, Les heures dolentes (The Mournful Hours), penned from his sickbed at a spa and permeated with thoughts of death. By the time the second cycle was written the composer was in better health, recuperating in a sanatorium at Cap Ferret, a small island near Arcachon. La maison dans les dunes, more optimistic in tone and demeanour, depicts the life-enhancing properties of the sun, sea and outdoor landscape. Dupont’s masterful command of colour and lush harmonic textures clearly reflects the influences of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré.

The first piece portrays the dunes on a clear morning in a constant state of flux. In Voiles sur l’eau, calm alternates with unalloyed passion in the form of swirling arpeggios. The reflective stillness of La maison du souvenir contrasts strikingly with Mon frère le Vent et ma sœur la Pluie, where the coruscating wind and sparking rain evoke a vivid terrain. I love the way Severin von Eckardstein voices the chords in Mélancolie du bonheur and brings light, transparent delicacy and rhythmical audacity to the affable Le soleil se joue dans les vagues. The next two pieces, Le soir dans les pins and Le bruissement de la mer, la nuit, have a darker and more sombre cast. The stars of No. 9 emit a radiant glow, whilst Houles ends the cycle with passion, drama and excitement; von Eckardstein throws all caution to the wind with his stunning virtuosity.

Debussy needs no such introduction. Safe to say that the two books of Images have an enduring and indispensable place in the piano repertoire. They were composed between 1905 and 1907, are strongly impressionistic and take their inspiration from visual images. Like the Dupont cycle, the six pieces are the perfect vehicle to showcase von Eckardstein’s wonderful mastery of colour and sonority, as well as subtle dynamic control. In Reflets dans l’eau the rippling water is captured to perfection. Hommage à Rameau, which harks back to Jean-Claude Rameau’s 1737 Castor and Pollux, has poise and refinement. The swirling figures of Mouvement are articulated with rhythmic precision. The pianist achieves some pellucid bell-like sonorities in Cloches a travers les feuilles, and Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is both poetic and timeless. A shimmering Poissons d’or emits a dazzling glow.

Eckardstein is a remarkable pianist. I first encountered his playing only recently in a recording on the MDG label of music by Messiaen, Janáček and Prokofiev. He shuns all forms of ostentation. Instead, he focusses his immense talents on deeply probing interpretations and achieving his vision of the work he is performing. His palette of colour can only be admired, as can his formidable technical prowess.

The icing on the cake is a superbly voiced Steinway, set in the warm and sympathetic acoustic of St. John the Evangelist, Oxford. It is one of those venues which confer both ideal space around the sound and just the right amount of resonance, allowing the rich colourful textures and sonorities to wash over you. This has been one of the most satisfying piano recordings I have heard this year, and it gets my enthusiastic recommendation.

Stephen Greenbank

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