Hemmerlé Plays Roger-Ducassse

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ROGER-DUCASSE: Barcarolle Nos. 1-3. Études Nos. 1-3. Arabesques Nos. 1-2. Rythmes. Sonorités / Patrick Hemmerlé, pno / Melism MLSCD013

Up to about a dozen years ago, I would have said that Charles Koechlin was an even more forgotten composer than Jean Roger-Ducasse, but David Zinman’s landmark recording of the former’s complete music for The Jungle Book and several recordings of his piano cycle The Persian Hours re-established him, and of course there have been many recordings of his work since. Yet although most of Roger-Ducasse’s music is available on CD he is still, as Patrick Hemmerlé points out in the liner notes, a stranger in the concert hall. Examining my catalog of recordings, I previously had only two works by him: Clarionerie played by the great pianist Nadia Reisenberg, and his Sarabande in a broadcast performance from the 1940s conducted by Arturo Toscanini (a champion of French music of that period).

Hemmerlé gives us some idea of why he is ignored and why he became forgotten, and both are tied to his somewhat surly, misanthropic personality. “He did not court potential performers of his music,” he writes. “Although he was played regularly whilst he was alive and very much a part of the musical scene, he had not the prepossessing personality which would have helped the diffusion of his music. If anything he rather hindered it. Furthermore, this side of his personality is reflected in the music and renders it difficult. A work by him is never given to the listener. Even when the message is in appearance quite a simple one, one still has to make an effort to go towards it, to assimilate the layers of complexities behind which the heart of the composer hides. I believe this is actually what he wanted.”

The opening piece on this recital, Barcarolle No. 1, opens with a surprisingly loud chord before descending into Impressionism. My reaction was that his music was more rhythmic than that of Debussy or even Koechlin; this piece, at least, also has an attractive melodic line, something that those other two composers did not always create. But it’s also true that there are “hidden” complexities to his music, particularly in the sense that his writing fir the left hand is, to my ears, much more complex than that of Debussy, Ravel or Koechlin. This doesn’t mean that those other composers wrote simple music for the right hand, only that it more often than not matched the rhythm of what was happening in the right. Roger-Ducasse often has two contrasting rhythms going on at the same time, certainly more often than the others. In fact, at least in the first Barcarolle, one could actually just play the left hand music and hear a complete, separate composition, something that is clearly not true of Debussy or Koechlin. But, again as Hemmerlé says, he does this subtly. He doesn’t come to you; you have to come to him.

In the Étude No. 1, in fact, the right hand plays mostly fluttering figures, dancing little arabesques, while the left hand provides the complete melodic line. This is an even more extreme case than the Barcarolle No. 1. And once again, his sense of rhythm is stronger and much more clearly defined than in the cases of those other composers mentioned. Perhaps, though French, he was influenced just as much or more with the Russian Scriabin as he was by his own peers. Incidentally, Roger-Ducasse was the star pupil and close friend of Gabriel Fauré, but even Fauré’s music lacked the clear rhythmic profile of his pupil.

The Étude No. 2 opens with a falling and rising chromatic figure (again, played by the left hand) that is closer in feeling to Debussy or Ravel, but he takes it on a chromatic journey all its own. The left hand plays the slow-moving melody as well as several of the chords while the right continues to trace those falling and rising chromatics. At about the 2:30 mark, however, he reverses this, giving the chromatic movement to the left hand while the right plays more melodic figures. Very strange! Eventually, the chromatic figures venture into modal scales to which Roger-Ducasse applies extended chords in the harmony. Eventually, the two hands create a really complex web of chromatic movement up and down against each other.

Indeed, this kind of cat-and-mouse game with the listener seems to be at the heart of every piece, as if Roger-Ducasse purposely set out to tease the listener with the way his voices “move” within each piece. At least in the works presented in this recital, no piece is anywhere near as complex as Debussy’s late Préludes or Koechlin’s The Persian Hours, and Roger-Ducasse never engages in the kind of impressionistic subtlety in which both melody and harmony are deconstructed the way Koechlin did, but it still requires some concentration to get the most out of his music. Unless your ears are following what both hands are doing, you’re missing at least half of the music at all times. These are miniatures, but miniatures put together with the skill of a master clockmaker who knows how to make his clockwork run sideways or backwards when he feels like it.

And, to be honest, the titles he gave his pieces don’t seem to be meaningful in any way. His barcarolles don’t really have a barcarolle rhythm, on the contrary, you could just as well call any of the barcarolles here an etude, or an arabesque, or a fantasie for all the difference it makes. All are in 4/4/ time (except for the Arabesque No. 2 in triple meter, though Sonotrités also begins in 3), most in medium tempo, and all play the same game with their clockwork. This doesn’t mean that each piece sounds alike, however: Roger-Ducasse clearly knew how to vary his approach to keep his pieces from sounding alike, but they certainly all do sound similar. Of course, the pieces that Hemmerlé chose here were all written within a fairly narrow period of time, from 1914 to 1921 with the sole exception of the first Barcarolle from 1906, but I have a feeling that this cross-section pretty much describes his working methods in general.

Hemmerlé plays all of this music with not only great digital facility but also with a wonderful forward momentum and a legato flow that keeps the clockwork whirling perfectly in synch. A very interesting CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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