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Henri DUTILLEUX (b.1916)
Complete Solo Piano Music
Sonata (1948) [24:56]
Trois Préludes (1973-88) [15:17]: Au gré des ondes (1946) [11:44]; Hommage à Bach [2:48]; Etude [1:16]
Bergerie (1947) [1:19]
Tous les Chemins…mènent a Rome (1961) [1:42]
Résonances (1965) [2:28]: Petit air à dormer debout [1:16]; Mini-prélude en éventail [1:06]
John Chen (piano)
rec. Genesis Concert Hall, Manukau City, Auckland, New Zealand, July 2005
NAXOS 8.557823 [61:23]

Such is the fastidious and painstaking approach to composition of Henri Dutilleux that his entire output for solo piano is accommodated quite easily on a single, hour-long disc. As the dates above demonstrate, most of his keyboard works come from earlyish in his career, before orchestral writing really began to dominate his thoughts. The biggest and the most important, the Piano Sonata, was started in 1946. It was written for his wife, the pianist Geneviève Joy, whom he married in the same year. Her recording of it has been intermittently available over the years, last being seen on a budget Ultima release (8573-88047-2). It’s had a few good recordings, but the young New Zealand-based Malaysian pianist John Chen has made it something of a speciality in his concert programming and obviously feels a great affinity with the piece.
It’s a tight, classically-structured three-movement form, and references to other composers are audible, the most obvious being Bartók, whose folkish modality is echoed in the work’s main opening motif. Chen’s nuanced yet propulsive playing brings plenty of light and shade, as in the delicate bridge passage that leads to the second theme (track 1, 2:09). He is slightly less highly charged in the stormier passages (as at 4:01) than my only available comparison, a superb ‘off air’ Radio 3 performance from Artur Pizarro, but Chen is very much alive to the many contrasts within the Sonata’s rigid framework. He is suitably contemplative in the Prokofiev-like Lent second movement, and rises heroically to the Sonata’s grand Choral et Variations finale, whose imperious, dissonant opening reminded me in passing of Copland’s piano music, some of which was written after studies in France. I love the toccata section beginning at 1:52, where Chen’s enviable technique is fully up to the considerable demands placed on it. All told, this is an excellent version which does complete justice to a brilliant, multi-layered piece.
Of the remaining works, many are miniatures lasting one or two minutes, delicate little studies in mood, generally written for occasional or functional purposes. Six of the best of them were collected together as a suite in the same year as the Sonata was begun, 1946, and given the collective title Au gré des ondes. They are never less than entertaining and Chen’s beautifully graded pianism is hypnotic.
I was even more impressed by what I consider the best pieces after the Sonata, Trois Préludes, which are the most recent compositions on the disc. These were not conceived as a cycle either but work very well as one. Here we get echoes of Dutilleux’s most famous predecessor, Debussy as well as a nod towards his older contemporary, Messiaen. The third is the most substantial, covering a lot of musical ground in its eight minutes and fully exploring the wide-ranging sonorities of the modern piano. The clear, detailed recording captures everything perfectly and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are, as usual, well written and informative
This release is part of Naxos’s excellent Laureate Series, where young competition prize-winners from around the globe are given a recording contract. Chen has won quite a few, most notably the 2004 Sydney International Piano Competition, and it’s easy to see why. I look forward to hearing more from him.
Tony Haywood


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