Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A period instrument L’Apprenti sorcier together with lesser known works by Dukas on a new release from Musicales Actes Sud featuring François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles

Paul Abraham Dukas’ (1865-1935) compositional output was relatively small and there is even less that has been recorded. His published works include his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, (1899–1907), a Symphony in C (1895–96), L'apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), for orchestra (1897), Polyeucte, overture for orchestra (1891), a ballet La Péri, (poème dansé) (1911/12), Villanelle, for horn and piano (1906), works for voice and piano and half a dozen piano works. His early unpublished works roughly equal the number of published works whilst there are around ten destroyed or projected works including a second symphony. Sadly it is only L'apprenti sorcier that Dukas seems to have been remembered for.

Les Siècles www.lessiecles.com  under their conductor François-Xavier Roth www.francoisxavierroth.com  have already made a number of recordings for Musicales Actes Sud www.actes-sud.fr/collection/musicales-actes-sud of repertoire that includes Berlioz, Dubois, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Stravinsky. Their last release, that brought us Debussy’s La Mer and the première performance of Debussy’s early work, Première Suite d’Orchestre, was reviewed by me back in April 2013

Les Siècles was founded in 2003 by François-Xavier Roth www.francoisxavierroth.com and performs contrasting programmes on modern and period instruments as appropriate, often within the same concert.

Hearing these works played on instruments of the period, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century, was fascinating and made this release one of the most enjoyable of the year.

This time François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles turn their attention to Dukas with, not only L'apprenti sorcier but a far less known published work the Overture Polyeucte and the early unpublished Cantata Velléda.


L’Apprenti sorcier, scherzo d’après une ballade de Goethe (1897) opens with some beautifully transparent textures as the main theme is hinted at. Such is the clarity and tempo that hints of Debussy are allowed to glow through. This clarity continues when the lively main theme makes its two brief initial entries with the period brass adds a ripeness to the timbre as the galloping main theme arrives. The instruments add subtle colourings to the music and François-Xavier Roth elicits playing of great panache from Les Siècles, with great bounce and vivacity, swirling strings and terrific ensemble. There are some wonderful woodwind sounds such as the ripe contrabassoon just after halfway through. As the music becomes more riotous there are marvellous sounds from the orchestra in this extremely fine live recording from Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. There is an atmospheric coda with pin point clarity of texture.

Velléda, cantata pour soprano, ténor, basse et orchestre sur un texte de Fernand Beissier (1888) has a prelude and three scenes and  tells the story of a doomed love affair between Eudore, A Roman and the Gaul druidess, Velléda who is eventually driven to suicide by her father, Ségenax. The opening Prelude provides some intoxicatingly atmospheric orchestral sounds showing what a fine orchestrator Dukas was, even at this early stage. There are some gloriously French sounds in this prelude, superbly played by Les Siècles.

Scène 1. A l’heure ou les grands bois dormiront, (At a time when the great woods sleep) brings tenor Julien Dran in excellent voice, showing fine strength and feeling in the part of Eudore. He has a fine operatic voice used to great effect. Les Siècles really whip up a storm before the tempestuous passage for tenor with the words Mais qu’entends – je? La foudre gronde. (But hear, the thunder rumbles). Soprano Chantal Santon joins as Velléda for Je suis la fee aux ailes d’or’ (I am the fairy with golden wings). She has a very musical voice with an attractive tone but with a rather wide vibrato.

Scene 2. ‘Velléda? Ah! Velléda!’ is a fine dramatic scene for both tenor and soprano with a particularly fine soprano aria Est ce le ciel qui s’ouvre en ce moment? (Is that the sky that opens now?)

Scene 3. Velléda! Dieux puissants! (Velleda! Powerful gods!) brings the beautifully rich bass/baritone of Jean-Manuel Candenot as Ségenax providing more drama before rising to a fine sequence for all the soloists before Tu sais quell est l’arrete de notre loi severe (You know the severe judgment of our law). There is a beautiful aria for Velléda Je ferai mon devoir (I will do my duty) showing Dukas’ melodic gift. After Velléda sings here touching Adieu Pardonne, o cher amant (Forgive farewell, o dear lover) and Eudore responds with Morte! Elle est morte! Terre et cieux (Dead! She is dead! Heaven and earth). It is Segenax that has the last word with Elle a venge l’honneur, la patri et les dieux (She avenged the honour, heritage and the gods) as the orchestra ends the work dramatically.

This early work has much fine lyrical and dramatic writing to commend it and is given a fine performance here.

Dukas’ Polyeucte, ouverture pour la tragédie de Corneille (1891) concerns Polyeucte a Christian convert who would rather die a martyr than renounce his new faith. His wife, Pauline, pleads with him, and the Roman soldier Severus attempts to save him, both to no avail.

The overture opens with deep mournful, rich, romantic string textures before working its way through a number of dramatic sequences, quite Wagnerian at times. Though, stylistically, some way from L’Apprenti sorcier, this is a beautifully constructed orchestral piece, full of drama and colour, with some lovely harmonic shifts.  Roth draws great dramatic sweeps from his orchestra and there are some lovely woodwind sounds from these turn of the century instruments.

The changed venue for the recording, L’abbaye de l’Epau, France continues to provide clarity of texture.

This is a most attractive release with a terrific L’Apprenti sorcier, a sumptuous Polyeucte and a fascinating and dramatic Velléda.

As with other recordings by this team the recordings are live. There is no obvious audience noise and applause is excluded. The booklet notes are excellent and well-illustrated but there are only French texts.

I look forward to more recordings from François-Xavier Roth and his wonderful Les Siècles.

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