Paul Dukas is most known, better or worse, for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it’s cultural iconification thanks to Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski; to be clear, I love Fantasia and have no time for anyone’s nose-thumbing it. I thought I’d listen to some Dukas after writing about his pupil Joaquín Rodrigo and the piece Lliri Blau which came out in 1934 while the two were pupil and student. Clearly, there was an influence here: Dukas’s 1897 piece was based on a poem by Goethe, while Rodrigo’s 1934 piece was from a Valencian poetic legend.
When I think of Dukas, though, the piece I’ve found rewards the most isn’t the cliched Sorcerer (with or without mouse ears) but his 1912 ballet La Peri. Pupil Rodrigo must have studied up as well on La Peri; the thematic material in Lliri Blau (a legend about a blue lily’s magical power) and the central Orientalist story of the search for a flower of immortality in Iran can hardly be coincidence. To my surprise, the ballet merited no mention in Edward Said’s classic on the genre, Orientalism.
Peri is a one-act ballet, and the opening fanfare is probably the most well known/performed selection. The piece as a whole found a non-surprising champion in Ansermet, who recorded it twice on London/Decca. It is a rich and harmonic score, bridging the periods of French Romanticism and Impressionism. (Should Dukas be considered conservative or m odern? Compared to what — apologies to Les McCann — when we have Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, all swirling in the musical atmosphere before Dukas died one year after his pupil’s Lliri Blau debuted in 1934.)
Ansermet’s first recording dates from 1954, London LL-1155 (Decca LXT-5003). I’m using data here from the Ansermet discography at Brenno Bolla. The UK pressed London copy I’m using is NM and no excuses need be made for the range of mono sound. The performance is rather lackluster though — I say this as an admitted Ansermet skeptic. His mono Sombrero de Tres Picos is a bore, if you ask me, though when stereo came along his performance in the studio seemed to get a boost. (I don’t think the mono record is even available on CD.) The same goes for my opinion of La Peri from the 1954 mono version to the early 1958 stereo, also London/Decca. It’s as if the thing suddenly sprang to life. Perhaps this had something to do with the cultural connotations of recording in the early days of the LP? Less realism, with no audience there to applaud?
In the event, the 1958 version, Decca SXL-2027, is an immense improvement, not just due to the stereo sound, but the overall drama. Also, the 1954 version oddly omits the fanfare. Can’t find an explanation as to why this would have been the case. The vinyl I’m using here is unfortunately not an original but a Speaker’s Corner reissue which is — have to say — a reason to stay away from reissues. Way too brightly lit, high frequencies punched, depth depressed despite the 180g weight. The London blueback pressing I’m comparing (CS-6043), is a nice copy wide band/ffss grooved, with far superior sonics and overall warmth.
The last record I mention here is an outlier, in that it’s more modern and I know from prior conversations with vinyl friends draws disdain: Pierre Boulez with the New York Phil, 1976. Recorded in SQ Quadraphonic, and reproduced using my old restored Sansui, the sonic effect is astounding. Yoiu can buy it on CD, to be sure. Boulez is worlds apart from Ansermet, and I wish I could accurately recall the disdainful line from one audiophile friend who said something about Ansermet having dreamed in more colors than Boulez ever saw in the world. That may be so, but in this case the precision and edginess of the score accentuates its drama for me as a listener, as opposed to the blatant (and very much enjoyable) lushness of the Suisse Romande under Ansermet. Boulez is making a point. It’s very much a modernist Stravinskian reading of a Orientalist romantic fantasy; and all the more interesting for it. Ansermet makes this score easy; Boulez makes it rather more hard to digest. One wonders what the composer might have thought, with his clear delight in storytelling and exoticism, whether of magical sorcerers or Iranian immortality.
A perfectly acceptable contemporary account of the complete Peri, similar to Boulez in overall approach, is from Slatkin and the Orchestre de Paris on RCA (1999 recording). You can sample the fanfare here:
And compare Ansermet’s more lush stylings:
Postscript I: Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To my surprise, I checked my collection and only had one record of this piece, Dutoit with Montréal on Decca 421-527, a late 1989 pressing which I had to hunt around for. I recall the CD sound as being perfectly fine, but the late digital vinyl is super. (Again, apologies to my pals who won’t conscience anything on vinyl past 1965.) By comparison, Ansermet’s 1963 OSR version is slower, more lush, and yes — in this case I’ll give in — has orchestral color light years beyond Dutoit, whom I greatly admire. Leave Boulez out of it on this one! Here using a UK Decca first pressing, SXL-6065, ffss, grooved. Going back to my earlier post, wondering why Rodrigo’s Lliri Blau didn’t make it on to one of these compilation records. You can find the Ansermet Sorcerer on CD here. Can’t vouch for the sound.
Postscript II: Three Cornered Hat. Here again is Ansermet, champion of this era. I don’t have the mono version to compare in real time, but have been unimpressed when hearing it in the past; the stereo on London ffss wide band pressing (CS-6224) is, however, wide ranging, dramatic, and a full tilt up toward the final moments. I also have the Speakers Corner reissue to compare as above, and in this case think the engineers did a much better job. I am partial to Dutiot and Montréal in this on vinyl, though, heresy though it may seem (also looks like this is out of print on CD). And then again there is the Boulez, CBS 33970, also Quadraphonic, and I can’t defend the sound as much in this case. Here his approach loses too much of the romance of the piece. But its precision is remarkable, and cinematic in its drama. A counterpoint to the Dukas and other pieces discussed above.
The Dutoit finale, on vinyl or on CD, arguably packs even more of a punch than Ansermnet. Sample here: