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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Hugues DUFOURT (born 1943)
Cycle "Les Hivers"

Le Déluge (2001)
Le Philosophe (1992)
Les Chasseurs dans la neige (2001)
La Gondole sur la lagune (2001)
Ensemble Modern/Dominique My
Recorded: (live) Halles de Schaerbeek Brussels, March 2002
AEON AECD 0209 [42.00 + 39.35 + 34.18]


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Dufourt’s status in French contemporary music must be unique, in that he was trained in Geneva studying piano with Louis Hiltbrand and composition with Jacques Guyonnet while pursuing academic studies in philosophy which he later taught in several French universities. Music, however, was and remained a major concern and he painstakingly composed a sizeable body of substantial works. These include an opera Dédale first performed in 1995, a large-scale work Erewhon written for Les Percussions de Strasbourg and several pieces inspired by visual artists, such as L’Orage (after Giorgione), La Maison du sourd (after Goya), Lucifer d’après Pollock, Hommage à Charles Nègre (originally a score for a film inspired by a photograph by Nègre) and the large-scale cycle recorded here Les Hivers.

Dufourt’s approach, however, excludes any attempt at easy pictoralism and superficial description. His works, inspired either by paintings or photographs, are essentially abstract pieces of music. He, more than anyone else, is fully conscious of the totally diverging nature of painting (or photography) and music, and of the difficulty, let alone the impossibility in bridging the gap between them. The former is primarily static, even when depicting movement as in Poussin’s Le Déluge or in Brueghel’s Les Chasseurs dans la neige, and suggests movement by working on our imagination. The latter, on the contrary, is essentially dynamic, unfolding in time, thus implying a beginning and an end. To a certain extent, Dufourt’s music may be experienced as an attempt at some reconciliation between the two art forms while relying solely on musical parameters. His generally slow moving music is often underpinned by considerable activity, as it were, under the surface.

The cycle Les Hivers was inspired by paintings by Rembrandt, Brueghel, Poussin and Guardi, all directly or indirectly related to winter and all having some symbolic meaning of their own reflected in the music, although – as already mentioned – the pieces are first and foremost abstract musical structures eschewing any directly descriptive elements.

Le Philosophe after Rembrandt was completed in 1992 whereas the other panels were completed almost ten years later. Le Philosophe was actually performed separately some time after its completion while the whole cycle was first performed complete in 2002. Le Philosophe is a perfect example of Rembrandt’s clair-obscur. The philosopher sits in front of the brightly sunlit window. The left corner of the room is in darkness whereas a spiralling staircase dimly lit by the sunlight occupies the right side of the painting. The piece falls into three sections played without a break, thus reflecting the painting’s structure. It opens in mysterious, dark tones progressively leading into the somewhat brighter central section in turn leading into the final section characterised by spiralling whiffs of tunes alluding to the staircase depicted in the painting. The music moves at a quite moderate tempo throughout, in limited dynamics, thus adequately equalling the meditative nature of Rembrandt’s painting. When the whole cycle was completed, Le Philosophe was placed second, as a slow movement, preceded by Le Déluge after Poussin. This fairly long movement also moves at a moderate tempo, but suggestions of the storm are achieved principally by slowly increasing dynamics and thicker textures leading to a comparatively short climax characterised by intensity rather than by rhythmical activity. The first panels, Le Déluge and Le Philosophe, are of fairly equal length (they both play for about forty minutes) and are followed by two shorter movements, of which the first Les Chasseurs dans la neige after Brueghel’s wonderful painting (a favourite of mine) acts as a Scherzo of some sort. The music here has more variety and even brightness. The movement opens with a slow introduction depicting, so to say, the global impression left by a first, superficial glance at the painting. Then, the eye leisurely travels through it; and, with human beings in the foreground (the hunters) and in the background (villagers, skaters), the music becomes brighter and somewhat more realistic without ever becoming descriptive. The movement ends, as it had begun, in wintry tones. Guardi’s La Gondole sur la lagune is predominantly grey. The outline of the city dimly emerges through the foggy background. The centre is entirely occupied by the grey waters of the lagoon with a black gondola (La Lugubre Gondole) in the foreground. Music of immobility in total accord with the painting’s essentially static quality.

Dufourt’s music is, as I have already mentioned, predominantly slow, often confined to limited dynamics and free of any descriptive elements (though the latter may sometimes briefly surface). It slowly unfolds as some labyrinthine ritual, and makes its points through subtle dynamic shadings, refined harmony and telling instrumental groupings without ever resorting to thematic or contrapuntal working of any sort. The most remarkable thing about it, I think, is that despite the acute intellectual conception "behind the music" it is quite gripping and calmly communicative, though it only yields its secrets on repeated hearings. I am in no doubt that Les Hivers is a major musical achievement of the late 20th Century.

The present performance of the complete cycle was recorded live during the opening concert of the 2002 Ars Musica festival in Brussels, but you would never guess it, were it not for the final applause greeting this very fine performance. There is hardly any background noise (sometimes musicians may be heard turning their pages) and the recorded sound is really quite good. The production is excellent (I have come to regard this as a hallmark of this new label’s releases) with many interesting notes, some of which are by the composer, but I would suggest that you listen to the music first and then read the notes. AEON deserve our gratitude for this brave venture and for thus allowing repeated hearings of this complex, but ultimately highly rewarding major work.

Hubert Culot

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