(b. 1916)
D’Ombre et de silence - Complete Piano Music:
Petit air à dormir debout (1981) [1.33]; Sonate (1946-48) [24.35]; from Au gré des ondes (1946): I. Prélude en berceuse; III. Improvisation [5.07]; Blackbird (1950); Tous les chemins … mènent à Rome (1961) [13.08]; Résonances (1965); Figures de résonances (1970/76) pour deux pianos I-IV; Mini-prélude en éventail (1987); Préludes: I. D'ombre et de silence (1973); II. Sur un même accord (1977); III. Le jeu des contraires (1988) [15.03]; Bergerie (1946) [1.06]; Au gré des ondes (1946): I. Prélude en berceuse; II. Claquettes; III. Improvisation; IV. Mouvement perpetuel; V. Hommage à Bach; VI. Étude [7.27]
Robert Levin (piano); Ya-Fei Chuang* (piano)
rec. December 2008, Radio Svizzera, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2105 (4763653) [75.31]

This is not the first disc to come out in recent years devoted to the intoxicating world of Henri Dutilleux’s piano music. Some of you may have access to an enterprising release in the Naxos ‘Laureate Series’ with pianist John Chen; it came out in 2006. Several items are repeated: the Piano Sonata, the Three Preludes and ‘Au gré des ondes’. However if you are coming to this music for the first time then do read on.

Running through the pieces in chronological order; the longest work on the disc and the earliest in so far as the composer considers it his Opus 1, is the three movement Piano Sonata which Robert Levin in his notes calls a “masterwork”. I was going to start off by writing that this is the sonata Debussy might have written had he lived. It seems to take off where the Debussy Etudes end. But no, I then thought of changing Debussy to Ravel: the Sonata he might have written but again no, I thought of changing it to Scriabin. After all Russian music was quite popular just after the war. The point is that the work is like none of these. It’s certainly not akin to the early and contemporaneous Sonata of Boulez or any of his others. It’s too emotional and nor is it like anything by Messiaen, Dutilleux’s other great contemporary, it’s too sensuous and classical. By telling you what the work is not like it might help you to understand its originality.

I cannot find much difference between Chen and Levin and I like both of their approaches. Perhaps Chen is more expressive in the, at times, desolate middle movement, marked ‘Lied’. Perhaps Levin grasps more of the direction in the opening movement. Both are powerful and exciting in the brilliant finale which sometimes stands as a one-off movement for some pianists wanting to show off.

Of the same period is Au gris des Ondes which can be translated as ‘To the waves liking’ (or something like that). Levin tells us that the composer did not wish to have the entire six movement suite recorded or indeed the rather ‘folksy’ Bergerie so composer and pianist hit upon a plan of adding them as a sort of appendix to the main thrust of the CD after a suitable silence. Therefore immediately after the Sonata just two movements appear of the suite, the charming rather Satiesque ‘Berceuse’ and a rather contrived little piece called, curiously, ‘Improvisation’. Of the others, the ‘Mouvement Perpetuel’ reminded me of Poulenc and I was quite captivated by the ‘Hommage à Bach’. Anyway, as Levin points out, other pianists have recorded the entire suite so why shouldn’t he. Levin in fact worked alongside Dutilleux and in an additional personal reflection tells us of their close association since the death of Nadia Boulanger, at the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau. Consequently this CD “represents the fulfillment of a dream” for him. It’s worth adding that these miniatures were mostly written as time-fillers between programmes for French Radio when Dutilleux was Musical Director of French Radio. Blackbird is such a piece with its rather effete and bouncy atmosphere and so is the rather charming Petit air à dormir debout with which he, rather curiously opens the recital.

Although tonality was still important to him by the 1960s he was developing his own sound world and harmony as heard in the very brief Tous les Chemins and even more so in Résonances where a delight in the full range of the piano is noticeable. Chen makes even more of the atmosphere than Levin and he does so again in the wonderful little Mini-prélude en éventail.

The one work recorded that is for piano duet dates back to the 1970s. Figures de résonances falls into four brief sections. Robert Levin’s booklet notes - which throw unusual light onto the origins of much of the music - talk about a “catalogue of resonances” quoting the composer. He brings up the concept of a “sonic refraction between the two pianos”. The piece consists of a series of highly polished gems. As a team the pianists work as one voice.

The Three Preludes were written at differing times. The first ‘D’ombre et de silence’ gives the CD its overall title. It was written, extraordinarily enough, for Artur Rubinstein. The second is also concerned with resonance and the sheer sensual pleasure derived from sound. ‘Sur un même accord’ is dedicated to Claude Helffer. The third ‘Le jeu des contraires’ which is a little longer than the first two put together is dated fifteen years after the first. It is the more emotionally volatile and dramatic and was written for a piano competition.

Altogether this is fascinating disc with two masterpieces: the Sonata and the Three Preludes and with various intriguing chippings from the Dutilleux workbench, most beautifully played and recorded. The booklet contains photos of the composer and the performers and two useful essays by Robert Levin.

Gary Higginson

A fascinating disc with two masterpieces most beautifully played and recorded.