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Thťodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)
Quintet in F major for Piano, Violin, Oboe, Viola and Cello [27:52]
Quartet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello [31:45]
Oliver Triendl (piano); Nina Karmon (violin); Stefan Schilli (oboe); Anja Kreynacke (viola); Jakob Spahn (cello)
rec. February 2020, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal KŲln, Germany
CPO 555 357-2 [59:51]

Thťodore Dubois, together with his eminently more famous French contemporary, Camille Saint-SaŽns (1835-1921), both spent their formative years as a church musician and organist, most notably at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where Dubois in fact succeeded Saint-SaŽns in 1877, who, by then, had spent twenty years in the role. But whereas Saint-SaŽns was, by then, already a successful international pianist and composer, Dubois is probably best remembered for his organ music, and this exclusively in France, despite his equal prolificacy in the realms of opera, orchestral, and chamber music.

Despite Saint-SaŽns’s far superior standing today, both he and Dubois were still considered very conservative composers at the time, Dubois especially so. But then, a lot of Saint-SaŽns’s fame is due to one work – his zoological fantasy ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ of 1886. While he always regarded it as a piece of fun, Saint-SaŽns was adamant that it would not be published in his lifetime, lest it be seen as detracting from his ‘serious’ composer image. Unfortunately, Dubois had no such secret weapon in his armory.

Dubois, on the other hand, was also an important teacher, and, from 1896 to 1905 was director of the Paris Conservatoire. Here he specialized in the art of counterpoint, having contributed his own treatise on the subject, but all this only combined to enhance his reputation as a staunch conservative academic, rather than a free-spirited composer.

Dubois, however, was obliged to retire early, after attempting to use his influence to deny Maurice Ravel the Prix de Rome, on account of Ravel’s ‘modernist’ tendencies. The French government intervened, appointing Faurť in his place – a small, but vital step in bringing French music into the twentieth century. Latterly, Saint-SaŽns also found he had little in common with the various directions of new music – from the apparent ‘shapelessness’ of Debussy’s impressionism, to Schoenberg’s expressionism, and dodecaphonic, or ‘twelve-tone’ technique.

The Quintet in F major for Piano, Violin, Oboe, Viola and Cello, which opens this new CD, dates from 1905, with the Quartet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello appearing two years later, both works coming around the time of the Prix de Rome debacle, and are stylistically backward-looking, as you might expect. There is a patent resemblance between them and Saint-SaŽns’s chamber music, which, incidentally, is probably his least well-known genre today – save for the effective and attractive Septet in E flat major, Op 65, for the unusual combination of trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano.

At this juncture, it would be difficult to say much more about Dubois’s opening Quintet, without giving the game away, thus spoiling the effect for any first-time listener. A cursory glance at the CD’s front cover reveals the composer’s name, the five performers involved, though without any mention of which instrument they play, and, of course the two featured works, shown alphabetically. When the Quintet’s opening Allegro begins, with a repeated dominant pedal from the viola, it’s not a violin that enters with the main theme – but the dulcet tones of the oboe, which albeit the ideal protagonist for Dubois’s plaintive triple-time melody with its clear pastoral overtones; this is something I still find so refreshing, every time I listen to the opening. Yes, it is designated a Piano Quintet, just one where the second violin has been substituted by the oboe. The front page of the score does say that the oboe itself may be replaced by a second violin, or even a clarinet could stand in. Irrespective, the oboe just seems the ideal vehicle for the music here, which is marked chantť, or ‘sung’.

The second movement – entitled Canzonetta. Tranquillo – basically stands in place of a Scherzo or Minuet as such, combining the feel of a peacefully ambulating song with a short, and livelier middle section. But if it’s a tearjerker you’re after, look no further than the Adagio non troppo, where the oboe comes into its own, with the violin and other strings not far behind. There is a slightly more troubled middle episode, where Dubois really excels in the delicacy of his scoring, giving each instrument its fair share of the thematic material. This little gem is the emotional heart of the whole Quintet – what a well-hidden treasure.

The calm of the Adagio is soon dispelled as the Finale bursts onto the scene. It certainly lives up to its fiery nature (Allegro con fuoco), as strings and piano begin their terse, fortissimo four-bar introduction in octaves, the key now having switched to the tonic minor (F), before the oboe introduces the main theme over a pulsating rhythm from the piano. There are some lovely expansive moments, where arpeggios from the piano support the interweaving melodies above, both earlier in the movement, and later recapitulated as the music is on the home straight. Dubois manipulates his thematic material with all the expertise of a well-honed contrapuntalist, but without feeling the need throw in a short fugue, or extended fugato passage along the way for good measure, often merely to impress, or while away a minute or so.. Tonality-wise, he keeps us guessing until passing the ‘minute-to-go’ marker, and from then onwards, it’s very much a exciting and joyful race to the finish, back in the major key in which the work started out.

The Quartet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello is similarly a conventional four-movement work, but conforms to the regular piano-quartet formula, here without any visiting wind instrument. The tranquil opening of the Quartet now gives away to altogether terser writing, as the Allegro agitato tempo marking requires. As with the Quintet, however, there are some noticeable shifting chromatic chord juxtapositions, all adding to the restlessness of the texture, until the calmer aspect of the second-subject material intervenes. Again Dubois shows himself a true master of the craft, in terms of the way he uses, and manipulates his material, no more so than in the effective and succinct development section, and the highly-charged dťnouement.
The ensuing Andante espressivo is another little tear-jerker, this time cast in the lilting form of a gentle berceuse, or lullaby. There is more than enough variety in the shifting tempo, as the movement constantly rises and falls, dynamically and emotionally, until the opening is reprised towards the end, after which comes the serenest of closes – a minute or so of pure repose and profound emotion.

Instead of following this with a Scherzo as such, Dubois comes up with a short and catchy Allegro leggiero, which has all the swiftness and charm of any similar ‘elf-like’ creation by Mendelssohn. Yet, for all its abundant fun and gaiety, Dubois, as Mendelssohn might also have done, can’t resist a little fugato section here, but which stops short of becoming a fully-fledged fugue. However, the end is sheer tongue-in-cheek magic.

The Finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, again has more than sufficient ‘fire’ in the writing, and, of course, the correspondingly high-octane performance, The movement itself also can be seen as functioning somewhat like the ‘missing’ Scherzo, and there are certainly a number of occasions when it brings to mind the second movement from Saint-SaŽns’s equally glittery Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor. Dubois is every bit the master of texture and timbre, as the wonderfully ethereal dolce-poetico section would seek to confirm, some minutes into the movement. There are even references or allusions to thematic material from the previous Andante, and Allegro leggiero respectively, but whereas most composers would leave that up to the performers, and hence audience to pick up on, Dubois meticulously labels one such example thus, ThŤme du Mouvt III, transformť – ever the caring teacher-composer.

As with many other releases of obscure chamber music or concertos involving the piano, the CPO label is extremely fortunate to be able to call upon the services of Bavarian-born pianist Oliver Triendl, a devoted champion of neglected and rarely-played composers with more than 100 such CD recordings to date. Triendl has a superbly reliable technique and total empathy for whatever he is playing. Moreover he shows equal respect, whether playing something from the mainstream repertoire, or, as on this and many other occasions, unfamiliar works that some might merely dismiss as attractive salon music with not much real substance. He is joined here by five equally-talented instrumentalists who all share his same enthusiasm for, and belief in what they are playing, none more so than oboist Stefan Schilli, whose contribution in the Quintet is a vital element in the work’s overall success. The recording is also first-rate, and the sleeve-notes, appropriately entitled ‘The Joy of Discovery: Chamber Music of Thťodore Dubois’, are most informative and entertaining – even if the font is a tad challenging, in order, presumably, to present everything in both German and English.

I have really enjoyed listening to both works by Dubois on this CD, and this has already encouraged me to get to know more of his output. While some will probably counter by saying that neither work is anything exceptional in the overall scheme of things, let me allow Georg-Albrecht Eckle the final word, taken from his sleeve-notes: ‘(Dubois) needs affectionate, attentive listeners – and on top of that today he needs those with the ability to enjoy themselves and a passion for discovery’. Suffice it to say that, if you fit into this category, then you will surely derive as much pleasure in getting to know these two charming chamber works by Thťodore Dubois, as I have.
 
Philip R Buttall

 

 



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