Thursday, February 16, 2006
Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Friday May 12, 2000
Ever since Walt Disney's Fantasia in 1940, Paul Dukas's Symphonic Scherzo after Goethe has been inseparable from the image of Mickey Mouse trying to stem the battalions of buckets marching through the sorcerer's cellar. That sequence has been a mixed blessing for the reputation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: the piece may have become a popular classic as a result, but such familiarity has bred, if not exactly contempt, then at least a taking for granted of the work's brilliance as a piece of orchestral writing, for Dukas (1865-1935) was one of the most gifted and self-critical of all the turn-of-the-century French composers.
This intense self-scrutiny meant that, especially in the second half of his life, Dukas destroyed more music than he allowed to survive, and his reputation now rests on just 15 works, including a symphony, a ballet (La Péri), two major piano works and one unfairly neglected opera (Arianne et Barbe-Bleue, to a libretto by Maeterlinck).
The Sorcerer's Apprentice was written in parallel with the symphony and first performed in the same year (1897); some of its themes share more than just a family likeness with that work, and it has been suggested that Dukas originally intended it as the symphony's scherzo. But the bigger work is entirely abstract and, as the subtitle indicates, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is explicitly programmatic. Based on Goethe's poem of the same name, it is self-contained in its own right.
The construction is very rigorous; Dukas was essentially a conservative composer who idolised Beethoven, but tended to pursue his harmonic and rhythmic schemes to their logical conclusion. The way in which the main theme of the scherzo is remorselessly accumulated from tiny cells fascinated the modernists around him, and both Stravinsky's Fireworks and Debussy's Jeux are indebted to Dukas's method of construction. But the genius of the piece is that for all its formal rigour it seems natural and, in its dazzling orchestral colours, vividly pictorial.
Conductors, then, need to balance the rigour of The Sorcerer's Apprentice with its sheer élan, and always remember that it is a scherzo. Toscanini certainly understood that - his version (Pearl) is lightning fast, while Leopold Stokowski, who recorded it for the Disney soundtrack, brings out all the orchestral splendour (Biddulph).
Among the more recent versions, it's James Levine with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) who, surprisingly perhaps, balances the athleticism and structural coherence best; Charles Dutoit (Decca) is fractionally too staid, though the Montreal Symphony's playing is superb. The only disadvantage of the Levine version is that it is coupled with Saint-Säens rather than with more Dukas, but David Zinman and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, who produce a fine-grained and intelligent performance, combine it with La Péri and Dukas's overture Polyeucte, as well as Vincent d'Indy's Symphony. A perfect introduction to a fascinating composer.
Key recording: Zinman (Philips 454 127-2)
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