Thursday, February 16, 2006


Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Andrew Clements
Friday May 12, 2000
The Guardian

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)

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Tchaikovsky: Sixth Symphony, B minor, Op.74

Tchaikovsky wrote his Sixth, and last, Symphony (Op.74 in B minor) in 1893, very shortly before his sudden death. He himself called it the Pathetic, and the impression became quite general that he had been laboring under the premonition of his approaching end. Nothing could be farther from the truth; moreover, only the brief final Movement is genuinely pathetic, and that but part of the time, this pathetic mood being brightened by contrasting episodes of decidedly hopeful and consoling quality. The first Movement is tragic rather than pathetic, yet here again frequent gleams of light and warmth fall across the background of passion---in this way, to be sure, accentuating the tragic pulses by their contrast.

The first Movement is in regular, but broad sonata-allegro form. A brief Introduction (Adagio) precedes the principal Theme, based entirely upon the opening motive; and two Codettas follow the subordinate Theme. This first Movement contains a number of stirring climaxes, carried out with that logical force and sureness of aim in which Tchaikovsky was adept.

There is no authentic slow Movement, or, more correctly stated, the slow Movement is shifted to the last place in the Symphony---as Finale. The second Movement has, however, the lyric tone due at this point; it is graceful, charmingly melodious song, or dance, in swaying 5/4 meter. Its complacent, happy countenance is slightly clouded with a veil of melancholy in the Trio.

The third Movement represents the Scherzo, though it carries no title. It is anything but "pathetic," and it has a unique structural plan: an apparently unimportant motive, in striking rhythmic form, creeps in (in the ninth measure) quite incidentally---later turns out to be the index of the subordinate Theme---and then advances steadily into overpowering prominence; its ultimate complete supremacy is recorded in crashing blasts of the brass instruments, in a climax that is almost without parallel in legitimate symphonic literature. The design is sonatine-allegro (there is no Development).

The Finale, contrary to all precedent, is a slow Movement, Adagio lamentoso, that is no doubt chiefly responsible for the designation of the Symphony as a whole. Its principal Theme is profoundly "pathetic;" but the subordinate Theme is a lyric melody (in Song-form) of rich, trustful quality, that breathes hope and solace: some music lovers may regret the return to deep sadness at the end.



BBC SO to present portrait of Argentine Composer Osvaldo Golijov

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Christopher Cook are presenting a portrait concert of Osvaldo Golijov which will feature four premieres of the composer's work. Golijov's music has become familiar to audiences in the US but is still relatively unknown in the UK.

The concert, which will be broadcast by Radio 3 at 19.30 on 16th February, will feature Last Round (UK premiere); Tekyah (UK premiere); Ainadamar Arias and Ensembles (world premiere); Ayre (European premiere).

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Schumann Festival 2006

With Mozart celebrations bubbling up everywhere, we should pause to remember that Schumann died 150 years ago, 1856.

Please check out Schumann Festival.


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