Is there something about the end of August that motivates the decision to try new experiences? The implication of mortality or at least the end of youth? Or something as mundane as the old habit of optimism ingrained by the beginning of the school year? This August brings partial fulfillment of many years of intending to look into Paul Dukas’ Sonata for Piano. This month I’ve spent some time listening* while reading through the score. The Sonata, the only one of Dukas’ which survives, is well known as one of the monuments of the piano literature, often mentioned, seldom performed or recorded. I’ve also reread Debussy’s "Monsieur Croche" essay** about it, full of sharp, clarifying insight of the kind only a great composer can bring to the analysis of a great piece by another composer. I’m not going to compete with that example of critical genius. In hopes of motivating you to listen to this challenging music I’m posting his short critique of it complete, below.
As Debussy said, this is music that doesn’t give up its mysteries and profound insights on first hearing. Or the twentieth, I’ll add. It’s hard to see it ever being a crowd pleaser, though the third movement as a separate piece might be exciting. But it’s impossible for me to not recommend it as a great piece of music. I’ve been listening to the Naxos recording with Chantal Stigliani which quite affordable. She is excellent, though I would suggest you not try listening to the entire disc at one time. The very long sonata, it’s been called the French "Hammerklavier", is challenge enough for one sitting. The other long piece, the Variations, though less of a challenge than the Sonata are also worth listening to alone. There are only two short pieces in addition, including Dukas’ "Lament, from afar, of the Faun", which I seem to recall was written in memory of Debussy.
I also recommend the disc performed by Marc Andre Hamelin. Hamelin, the great intellectual virtuoso, is unable to give a bad performance. No matter how difficult the piece, how subtle the points of genius or obscure the unknown composer, he finds them and presents them in a fully convincing performance.
Dukas is famous for writing the Sorcerer’s Apprentice* and somewhat less famous for having destroyed most of his music fairly late in his life. He, like a small number of other composers who knowing they will not having a major career as a composer was unwilling to leave anything that was less than the best. It’s a brave decision, if one that carries regrets for future generations. I’m glad this music stood up to Dukas’ test.
* Dukas Complete Piano Music played by Chantal Stigliani Naxos: 8.557053
Also: Marc Andre Hamelin piano Hyperion: 67513
The score is available online, in the public domain. It’s a very long score so you might want to consider before printing it out.
** Reprinted in Three Classics In The Aesthetic of Music, Dover ISBN 0-486-20320-4
*** The subtle, even undemonstrative piano music is very different from that showpiece.