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Dutilleux, Bartok:  James Gilchrist (tenor), Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor) St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 16.2.2008 (GPu)

Dutilleux, Mystère de l’instant
Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Dutilleux, Deux sonnets de Jean Cassou
Alain (orch. Dutilleux), Prière pour nous autres charnels
Dutilleux, Symphony No.2 (Le double)

In Cardiff this last weekend has seen a series of concerts (and talks) devoted to the music of Henri Dutilleux, under the title Discovering Dutilleux / Darganfod Dutilleux. Very unfortunately, other commitments prevented my attending more than this single concert. Earlier events had included a piano recital by Claire-Marie Le Guay, which included music by Thierry Eschaix and Ravel alongside Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata; a concert by the Psophos Quartet, performing Dutilleux’s ‘Ainsi la nuit …’ and Debussy’s String Quartet; talks by Roger Nichols, Thierry Fischer, Jeremy Huw Williams, Kenneth Hesketh, Caroline Rae and Caroline Potter. The festival closed, on Sunday 17th February with a recording for the ‘Discovering Music’ series of the second Symphony. This present orchestral concert was preceded on Friday 15th by another in which Jac van Steen conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Dutilleux’s ‘Tout un monde lointain...’ and Correspondences, as well as Ravel’s Valses noles et sentimentales and Debussy’s La Mer. Friends able to attend were warm in their praise of this earlier concert (in which the soloists were cellist Gautier Capuçon and – a late replacement – soprano Claron McFadden).

Dutilleux’s music is characterised by its independence from the often reductive theorising which has marked much French music of recent years. His acute and sensitive ear for instrumental colour, his sense of the ineffable and the spiritual, his fascination with the fugitive and his ability to articulate that fascination in music which is, paradoxically, very precisely conceived in terms of particular combinations of instruments,  all give his work a very personal musical fingerprint, as it were, even if he recognisably belongs in a line of descent which runs from (leaving aside earlier antecedents) Couperin, Rameau and Renaissance polyphony) through Debussy to Messiaen and beyond. As this concert also highlighted, he learned much from Bartok too. There is both spirituality and sensuousness in Dutilleux’s best music, expressive of a distinctive, yet in many ways traditional, poetic sensibility.

Mystère de l’instant was written at the end of the 1980s, commissioned by Paul Sacher and premiered – under Sacher's baton   – in
Zurich on 22 October 1989. It is made up of ten brief (some briefer than others) sections, with resonant titles: Appels [Calls], Échos [Echoes], Prismes [Prisms], Espaces lointains [Distant spaces], Litanies, Choral [Chorale], Rumeurs [Murmurs], Soliloques [Soliloquies], Métamorphoses (sur le nom de SACHER) [Metamorphoses (on the name of SACHER)] and Embrasement [Conflagration]. While never simply programmatic, Dutilleux’s music is everywhere poetically suggestive. Mystère de l’instant is scored for strings, cimbalon and percussion. Whether in the hesitant opening of ‘Appels’, beautiful in its slightness of sound, in the expressive melodies of ‘Litanies’ or the night music of ‘Rumeurs’, Mystère de l’instant is a constantly fascinating and rich work. It is perhaps in ‘Rumeurs’, with its wisps of sound, its glissandos and its tonal shifts that one hears most clearly echoes of, allusions to, Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a Sacher commission from over fifty years earlier than Mystère de l’instant.

Like Bartok, Dutilleux is often at his best in the evocation of the night, of  its small and almost inaudible sounds. In Mystère de l’instant Dutilleux’s writing, with its gatherings and fallings away, with its cells that grow, coalesce and dissolve, seems a perfect illustration of a distinction famously formulated by Coleridge (borrowing from Schegel), between organic and mechanic form. That form is organic, expressive of the imagination, which “
dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”, in a work of art whose form is “innate; [which] shapes as it develops from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form”. Mechanic form, on the other hand, imposes a predetermined pattern (drawn unmistakably from precedent and rule) upon a work of art. As befits its title and its philosophy, Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant is very much an instance of organic form and its innate principles of self-fulfilment were sensitively evoked and articulated by Fischer and the National Orchestra of Wales.

Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which followed, employs larger orchestral forces and, in its use of such forms as fugue makes more gestures towards ‘mechanic’ form (the term is here used without any pejorative overtones). Like Dutilleux’s Second Symphony – to be heard later in the programme – it operates in part, by a kind of metamorphosis of the baroque concerto grosso. The ethereal fugue, seemingly laden with grief, which opens the work, was beautifully played, though there have perhaps been performances which conveyed the inevitability inherent in the form a little more compellingly; at moments there was perhaps a slightly excessive relishing of the admittedly very beautiful details. The following allegro benefited from some incisive rhythmic playing, where the ‘mechanic’ form of the sonata which underlies it was evident but to a degree submerged in the sheer vigour, sheer fun of much of the music. In the Adagio, with its shimmering nocturnal textures, it was natural  in this context, to hear anticipations of Dutilleux. There was playing of real delicacy here, much that was haunting and evanescent. In the last movement (Allegro Molto), by contrast, extrovert folksy intonations were in evidence from the very opening bars, contrasts of tempo and dynamics were vivid, and the sheer frenzy of some of the music was captured in playing which remained disciplined throughout. It was an instructive bit of programming which allowed us to hear Bartok’s work;  so much light does it throw – in terms both of similarities and differences – on the achievements of Dutilleux.

The second half of the programme began with two orchestral songs by Dutilleux, settings of sonnets by Jean Cassou and Dutilleux’s orchestration of Jehan Alain’s setting (for tenor, baritone and organ) of words by Charles Péguy. From where I was sitting  at least, the problems of balance appeared not to have been solved. In the Deux sonnets de Jean Cassou, the baritone of Jeremy Huw Williams was often badly submerged by the orchestral sound; the subtleties of the vocal line were, consequently, almost wholly lost. Williams and James Gilchrist (rapidly becoming a regular at St. David’s Hall) fared slightly better in this regard, but there were still difficulties. A shame, because these are beautiful songs.

If the songs were a slight disappointment, the Second Symphony, the last work to be heard in this Dutilleux mini-festival , brought things to a resounding and triumphant conclusion. Dutilleux’s own observations on the work are worthy of quotation: “My work incorporates a rather singular formation. Division into two groups: in the first, 12 musicians chosen amongst the first desk players, disposed in a semi-circle around the conductor; in the second, the entire orchestra. This arrangement can hardly help evoking the traditional concerto grosso, although my ideal in fact has been to escape from this form whose pre-fabricated dimension seems incompatible with contemporary language. I thus endeavoured to avoid the stumbling block of the somewhat archaic form; the twelve musicians of the smaller orchestra considered separately do not constantly play the role of soloists; it is the mass they form that constitutes the solo element. This mass does not merely confront and dialogue with the larger formation, but at times fuses with, or superimposes itself upon the latter, leaving ample opportunity for polyrhyhthmics and polytonality”.

The work’s subtitle – Le double – is well-chosen, since it is full of echoes, mirrors, symmetries, ambiguities and reflections. Themes seem to slowly emerge, unveiled from orchestral textures of sensuous – but never over-solid – beauty. The opening movement (Animato, ma misterioso) has a real sense of drama, but it is a drama almost wholly interiorised, a dialogue of mental parallels and antitheses, which ends in poised inconclusiveness. Changes of direction – for all the movement’s essentially ternary form – seem to express the fluidity of mind and nature; architectural metaphors don’t come so readily to the mind as they do with the symphonies of many another composer. The central movement (Andantino sostenuto) is rich in countermelodies and the interplay between soloists/sections and the whole orchestra; as so often in Dutilleux’s writing, the movements towards and away from silence produce the most strikingly beautiful passages. The pizzicato writing in the basses provides a kind of pulse of life, above which gestures and movements, both small and (relatively) large individualise the music’s vital spirit. All three movements are linked by echoing motifs, the form, once more, being essentially organic. The closing movement (marked Allegro fuocoso – Calmato) might almost be thought of as two movements, so substantial is the final section (Calmato). The contrast between the fiery exuberance of the first part of the movement and the peaceful, dream-like second part is so absolute that one is almost tempted to think of this a symphony in four movements. Perhaps, in the spirit of ‘le double’ we should think of it as in both three movements and four movements; certainly the exquisite final section, lyrical and exquisite, with a firm harmonic core, contains some of Dutilleux’s most characteristic and most beautiful writing. The music refuses all cosiness or easy comfort; its balance of anxiety and assurance, hope and fear, are expressive not of real resolution but of a kind of acceptance of the mysterious ‘doubleness’ of life. This is a fine work, a major work, and it was played with commitment and sensitivity, a fitting and moving conclusion.

The composer, now aged 92, was in the audience, and the evening ended with a ceremony in which he was awarded an honorary fellowship of Cardiff University.  British readers may wish to know that the two orchestral concerts from the Festival, that of Friday 15th of February and the one here reviewed are scheduled for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 10th and 11th of March respectively.

Glyn Pursglove

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