When confronted with any single volume describing itself as "The Essential," one must invariably wonder: is that really possible? On the one hand, the idea of "The Essential Milton," "The Essential Tolstoy," or "The Essential Dante" defies comprehension, while on the other, the idea of "The Essential Keats," "The Essential Chekhov," or "The Essential Baudelaire" is not only comprehensible, it is in some ways preferable. It's all a matter of the size and scope of the oeuvre. When the subjects are God and Satan or war and peace or heaven and hell, a single volume is hardly enough. But when the subjects are beauty and truth or love and death or flowers and evil, brevity is surely the soul of wit.
And so it is with Paul Dukas. One of the least prolific of la belle epoch's composers, Dukas wrote an opera, a symphony, and a sonata along with a handful of other works, including, of course, the ever-popular tone poem L'Apprenti sorcier, and pretty much all his best works except the opera can be fit on two CDs. Thus the raison d'etre of The Essential Paul Dukas featuring fine if not especially exciting performances of the composer's best-known works. The orchestral works -- the heroic Symphony in C major, the oriental La Péri, the austere Polyeucte, and the inevitable L'Apprenti sorcier -- are given enthusiastic if not exactly idiomatic performances by the talented Yan Pascal Tortelier leading the skillful BBC Philharmonic or the energetic Ulster Orchestra. The piano works -- the enormous Piano Sonata, the ethereal Prélude élégiaque, and the epigrammatic La Plainte, au loin, du faune -- are given powerful if not always note-perfect performances by the charismatic Margaret Fingerhut. For those looking for the essential Dukas, this set is not only possible -- it's probable. Chandos' early digital orchestral sound is very big and very loud, but a bit too distant, while its early digital piano sound is very big, very loud, and a tad too close.