RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Correspondances for soprano and orchestra (2003) [18:28]
Tout un monde lointain … for cello and orchestra (1970) [26:09]
The Shadows of Time (1997) [21:31]
Barbara Hannigan (soprano); Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. Salle Liebermann, Ópera Bastille, Paris, December 2011 (Correspondances, Tout un monde lointain...) and Alfortville, Paris, September 2012 (Shadows of Time).
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 1180 [67:04]
This is a very special CD as it contains the world premiere recording of Dutilleux’s 2003 song cycle, Correspondances. I first heard the work when it was broadcast on National Public Radio in November 2003 in its US premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The soprano soloist on that occasion was Valdine Anderson who filled in for an indisposed Dawn Upshaw, for whom the piece was composed. I then had the fortune to hear Upshaw sing the work live in April 2006 on a return appearance to the National Symphony in Washington by Mstislav Rostropovich, who had championed Dutilleux’s music while he was the orchestra’s music director. Ever since, I have hoped a recording would appear and long last it has, albeit with a different soloist. As it happens, Barbara Hannigan is also one of my favorite sopranos, though I know her work primarily from her performances of Ligeti. According to the notes, Dutilleux was very impressed with Hannigan and wanted her to record the songs. He made some revisions in the score and provided a new ending especially for her. The most obvious difference, as far as I can tell, is the order of the movements. The cycle takes its title from a Baudelaire poem describing synaesthesia, the “correspondences” among the senses, but it also refers to letters that are texts of two of the songs, one from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to his friends Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, the other from Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo.
Originally, the work began with the movement from a text by the French-based Indian Prithwindra Mukherjee on the mystery of the cosmos titled Danse cosmique. Dutilleux also included two short poems both titled “Gong” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In the first version they were placed together before the last song, the letter between the van Gogh brothers. In his revision, Dutilleux now begins the cycle with Gong (1) and leaves Gong (2) in its former position. This makes for a more dramatic structure with each of these songs beginning loudly and indeed gong-like. The Danse cosmique now follows Gong (1), after which there is a brief orchestral interlude before the Solzhenitsyn letter. While this interlude lasts less than a minute, it perfectly captures Dutilleux’s unique sound and color with its use of accordion and tuba. Each of the songs is a gem and together they form a well-balanced cycle. The composer uses quotation convincingly in two of the songs. In the Solzhenitsyn letter in which the writer expresses his thanks to the Rostropovichs for their support in his opposition to the Soviet government, Dutilleux quotes the Holy Fool’s famous lament from Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov near the end of the song when Solzhenitsyn writes, “only one can derive strength from the knowledge that in our time we Russians are fated to a common doom, and one can only hope that the Lord will not punish us to the end.” It is very moving and Barbara Hannigan’s singing is heartbreaking. The other quotation comes from Dutilleux himself, in the van Gogh letter of the last song, where he quotes from Timbres, espace, mouvement, his homage to van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night. Hannigan seems the perfect soloist throughout the cycle, with a voice that can be soft and warm and then build to something very dramatic. Hers is a vibrant instrument that is perfectly pitched. The van Gogh letter is as good a place to experience her range as any, beginning softly with warm Ravelian tones and then ending on a high, sustained dramatic note. Salonen and the orchestra are in every way her equals. This is magnificent music-making. After he wrote Correspondances, Dutilleux composed another such cycle for Reneé Fleming, Le temps l’horloge, but no purely orchestral works. The two that accompany Correspondances on the disc under review, though, are among his greatest compositions.
Dutilleux’s cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain… and The Shadows of Time, comprise the remainder of the disc. Taken as a whole, the programme, consisting of compositions from 1970-2003, can serve as an ideal calling-card for this composer, especially in such fine performances as these. The concerto, like Correspondances, takes its title from Baudelaire and attempts to evoke the poet’s “whole distant world” in its five movements. Rostropovich commissioned the concerto and recorded it a few years later with Serge Baudo and the Orchestre de Paris. That recording has always been the obvious benchmark, but it has not kept other cellists from taking it up, such as Lynn Harrell who made a fine recording with Charles Dutoit in the 1990s. Rostropovich’s larger-than-life personality still dominates, but Anssi Karttunen here has nothing to fear in the comparison. He may not be as dramatic as the Russian, but he gives an eloquent account. His playing high in the register is particularly beautiful and he captures all the detail. Salonen’s accompaniment could not be better with very clear percussion and an ideal balance with the cello. Salonen may just be the best collaborator of all of them, bringing out every one of the subtleties of the scoring and not short-changing the work’s dramatic elements. The orchestra performs superbly as they do in the other works.
The disc concludes with what is for me the best introduction - along with the composer’s Second Symphony - to Dutilleux’s music. The Shadows of Time is one of those works that once heard stay in the memory forever. His latest purely orchestral work is the nocturne for violin and orchestra, Sur le même accord from 2002. He has not been the most prolific of composers! Quality counts for much more than quantity, and I can think of a good number of composers for whom it would surely have been better had they not written so much and concentrated on polishing their best works, as Dutilleux has done. Virtually all of his published compositions are masterworks and none more than The Shadows of Time. The Boston Symphony commissioned the piece and it was first performed and recorded by Seiji Ozawa. Like the Cello Concerto, it is in five continuous movements and with an interlude between the third and fourth sections. In its twenty plus minutes it encapsulates the twentieth century with its turbulence, but contains lighter moments as well. What makes it particularly unusual is the inclusion of three children’s voices in the third movement, ‘Memory of Shadows’, written in tribute to Anne Frank. The words, “Why us? Why the star” are sung in French by the three children in what is a very haunting passage. The orchestration, as in much of Dutilleux, is colorful and rather dense with brilliant writing for brass and percussion. The work begins and ends with the clock-like ticking of the temple block representing the relentless passing of time. Ozawa’s recording, much like Rostropovich’s of the concerto, is the benchmark. As one might assume, the Boston Symphony plays magnificently with especially powerful brass and percussion. Salonen’s account here is not as dramatic in that way — though it is surely powerful enough — but emphasizes the poetic side with the strings warmly expressive. There are subtleties in the score here that were otherwise not apparent. Salonen’s choice of three boys with well-matched voices, Basile Buffin, Alexandre Selvestrel and Armand Sztykgold, is particularly inspired. They make a stronger impression than their counterparts on the Ozawa recording. Overall, both recordings belong in any collection of Dutilleux or twentieth-century orchestral music in general.
Deutsche Grammophon’s presentation, however, is rather baffling. Although the cellist’s name is listed on the booklet cover, along with Barbara Hannigan’s, Salonen’s and the orchestra, there is no mention of either the concerto or the other orchestral work. Granted the main attraction of this disc is the world premiere recording of Correspondances, but they could have found room to list the other works as well, as they do on the back of the jewel case. Also, while the notes by Anthony Burton on the works are clearly more than adequate, there is nothing whatsoever about the performers. There is a nice black and white photo of Dutilleux with Salonen and Hannigan and a separate one of Anssi Karttunen. I’m sure there are many who have not heard of the Finnish cellist, though more than twenty works have been written for him by such composers as Tan Dun, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. Like Hannigan he has had an international career and specializes in contemporary music. The Canadian soprano in recent years has received due recognition as the vocal phenomenon she is, and not only in the works of Ligeti.
The shortcomings of the disc’s presentation are only a small annoyance. The music, after all, is what counts. It is rather early to say, but I am confident this CD will be at or near the top of my list of recordings of the year.
A very special disc of Dutilleux’s Correspondances and other masterworks.
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