Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
GABRIEL FAURe and Paul Dukas, prominent this week on Radio 3, make a neat pair of opposites. One was a prolific miniaturist with limited means, the other left a few lavish pieces. Both were perfectionists, but while Faure seemed to focus his artistic vision from the start, the hesitant Dukas would criticise his creative output to the point of self-censorship. The more he imagined, the less he published.

That makes him a useful Composer of the Week, since in five days you can almost do the complete works. Monday featured two goes at The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was a shame when Wednesday had time only for extracts from his thrilling and rather less famous opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Taking the legend of the woman-hungry Bluebeard and giving it a feminist spin, it's a more dramatic and colourful version than the one by Bartok. Unfortunately it does go on for hours longer, so performances are hard to come by.

The Dukas paradox is that the more he hesitated, and tried to cover what he saw as flaws, the more his uncertainty showed. In one sense this is the subject of the opera, in which Bluebeard's wives dither on the brink of being freed. Where it shows most is in his symphony, a rousing piece with an opening movement that can't decide when to end. Every time you think it's arrived, another coda starts up, to the point that even the final chord suffers several postponements. It's one of the most exhausting passages in any music of the late 19th century. The relative lightness and brio of the finale come as quite some relief, since by then you expect Dukas to be outdoing the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony.

Faure had wobbly moments, too, but he polished them out of the finished article. Cultivating throughout his life the genres of song and piano music, he brought them to his own kind of perfection several times over, as he pared down his musical style to a medium of concentrated expressive and harmonic suggestion.

It was surprising to hear the perceptive Iain Burnside, devoting Tuesday's Voices programme to Faure's songs, talk about "a language of extraordinary restraint". How British! The essence of Faure's later music is naked intensity. Burnside was soon back on track, nicely describing the mid- life songs' ambience of "rumpled sheets" to finish with a quote from the l'Horizon chimerique cycle: "The sea is infinite, and my dreams are wild."

This was a well-chosen survey, including the favourites - "Clair de lune", "Mandoline" - and showing how the fluent, fleshy melodies of the young Faure evolved and slimmed in his old age. Burnside accompanied two singers whose contrasted approaches made riveting listening in their own right: Sarah Milne full of energy, feeling and a quick vibrato, Christopher Maltman slow and languid.

British baritones don't suit Faure's music. They make pleasures sad, and they bark when aroused. Savour Verlaine's line, "C'est l'extase langoureuse, c'est la fatigue amoureuse", and believe that when Maltman sang it the most telling word was "fatigue". Milne gave touching, responsive performances of "Apres un reve" and "Nell", and is a voice to listen out for.