One week from today Naxos will release an album of three orchestral compositions by Henri Dutilleux. As is usually the case, Amazon.com has created the Web page for this recording and is currently processing pre-orders. Dutilleux has not gotten as much exposure in the United States as he deserves. Fortunately, San Francisco has been kind to him, although performances of his music by the San Francisco Symphony seem to have been attributed pretty much to soloists and conductors visiting from Europe. This May, however, our local Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will be including his music on their Francophilia program.
One of the interesting aspects of Dutilleux’ career is that he seemed willing to give almost anything a try. This meant that he could claim “hands-on” experience with most of the approaches to making music that prevailed during the twentieth century. His eclectic attitude may have been connected with his having served as Head of Music Production for Radio France for eighteen years. It also meant that he could be a sympathetic and encouraging teacher to a wide diversity of students.
However, in my own listening experiences what stands out most is Dutilleux’ consummate skill in creating impressively innovative sonorities with the instruments in a conventional ensemble harnessing conventional techniques. He was no stranger to the theoretical foundations behind the synthesis of sounds. (Gérard Grisey was one of his students.) However, when it came to practice, rather than theory, he seemed to have the same remarkable skill set that his predecessor Maurice Ravel could command so masterfully. If one thought of Dutilleux as a Ravel willing to let go of the tonal center, one might not be too far off the mark.
Each of the three selections on this new album provide excellent examples of just how imaginative Dutilleux could be with instrumentation. He gave his second symphony the title “Le Double;” and the music almost amounts to a dialectic give and take of contrasting sonorities. Those contrasts, in turn, arise from not only the instruments themselves but also his ability to achieve subtle effects by varying the numbers of instruments involved, from solo “punctuations” to “massive blocks” of large ensembles.
If the symphony is a study of the abstraction of sonorities, “Timbres, espace, mouvement” (timbre, space, movement) amounts to an instrumental denotation (rather than connotation) of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night canvas. Over the course of the three movements (which do not correspond one-to-one with the three nouns in the title), one appreciates how both the objects and the moods of van Gogh’s painting emerge through Dutilleux’ rhetoric of sonorities. The album then concludes with “Mystère de l’instant” (mystery of the instant), a series of ten movements each of which has been distilled down to the shortest possible duration. With apologies to Wallace Stevens, one might call this piece “ten ways of listening to an instant.” The “essence of instant,” so to speak, is highlighted by judicious use of a cimbalom, whose decay time is particularly rapid.
All three pieces are performed by the Lille National Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang. Given how few opportunities there are to listen attentively to Dutilleux’ music, it is hard to compare one ensemble with another. Suffice it to say that the performances on this album provide an account of several of Dutilleux’ techniques effectively enough that the sympathetic listener can appreciate those characteristics that distinguish him. When one is just getting to know a composer, does one need any more?