In common with such other orchestras as the San Francisco Symphony and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony now has its own recording label. To celebrate they have issued four discs, three of which contain French music as befits the orchestra’s music director since 2011, Ludovic Morlot. According to his tribute, “Remembering Dutilleux”, in the CD booklet, Morlot first met the composer when the conductor was a student at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home, and later spent time with him in Paris. Dutilleux was always generous with his time for those musicians performing his works, if earlier recordings of his music are any indication. The same seems to be true here, and Morlot indeed shows a real affinity for Dutilleux’s music.
The CD’s programme encompasses a large part of Dutilleux’s career, beginning with his first orchestral work, the Symphony No. 1. The symphony would seem to follow the traditional four-movement pattern if it were not for the Passacaglia
first movement. The movement begins quietly on the lower strings and then builds from there with thirty-five repetitions to a sonorous climax before becoming quiet and ending with strings and glockenspiel. The second movement Scherzo
also begins quietly, but is breezy and colorful. It contains a blues-tinged bassoon solo and ends in a burst of sound on a bright, D major chord. The third movement Intermezzo
is quiet and ruminative with the main themes on the strings and woodwinds and brass punctuating for the most part, though there are also a couple of nice horn solos here. The final movement, unlike the others, begins loudly on brass and timpani playing heavy chords. It follows a path opposite that of the first movement, containing variations on the initial theme, but winding down to end quietly in the strings. This is the longest movement of the symphony and in addition to jazz shows the influence of Stravinsky. There is a passage beginning at about 6:40 that could have come from Le Sacre
. Dutilleux’s orchestration is denser in this work than what we hear in his later compositions and in some respects reminds me of Albert Roussel more than either Debussy or Ravel. Even so, the symphony is clearly by Dutilleux and very well constructed. It deserves more exposure than it has received. On CD, its main competition comes from Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos, a disc that also contains the composer’s more familiar Symphony No. 2. It is good to have both symphonies on the same CD and that recording is not superseded by this new one with Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. Nevertheless, this one more than holds its own in such company. If anything, the sound is generally bolder and clearer and both orchestras perform well. Morlot’s bassoonist, who employs a little vibrato, is especially expressive in the second movement. On the other hand, in Tortelier’s recording one can hear the fine horn solo near the beginning of the third movement, whereas this solo is rather masked by the strings in Morlot’s — even if Morlot’s cellos are particularly ardent at the beginning of the movement.
There is more competition when it comes to the other works here, in particular the cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain …
(“A Whole Distant World”). The concerto’s title and those for each of its five movements are derived from the poetry of the symbolist Baudelaire. It is a representative work from Dutilleux’s maturity and more introspective than the symphony. It shows well how far he traveled from the earlier composition with the concerto’s luminous orchestration and more delicate textures, though it, too, rises to mighty climaxes in the orchestra. Tout un monde lointain …
has received a number of excellent recordings since its première by Rostropovich. That account still remains the benchmark by the very fact that Dutilleux composed the work for the cellist. Yet, that recording places the cellist inordinately close to the microphone to the detriment of the colorful orchestral part. Last year I reviewed
a recording by Anssi Karttunen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Esa-Pekka Salonen, which became one of my Recordings of the Year primarily because the disc included the world prèmiere of Dutilleux’s song cycle, Correspondances
. Karttunen gives an eloquent account of the work with significantly better accompaniment by Salonen than Rostropovich received on his recording. If anything, the French cellist Xavier Phillips outdoes Karttunen by virtue of his gorgeous tone - he plays a 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello - and stupendous technique. In this regard he is more like Rostropovich, but with a much better recorded orchestra. Indeed, soloist and orchestra are treated as equals here and overall produce the most satisfying results.
The Shadows of Time
is also becoming one of Dutilleux’s best-known works and deservedly so. It was one his last orchestral compositions and one that has immediate appeal, if perhaps not quite the depth of some of his other works. It is a real tour de force
for the orchestra. Dutilleux began composing The Shadows of Time
, as a commission from Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, in 1995, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The title indicates the composer’s concern with light and darkness and the passage of time. The work both begins and ends with the tick-tock of the temple block. The third of six movements, which include an interlude, is entitled Mémoire des ombres
and is dedicated to “Anne Frank and to all innocent children of the world (1945-1995)”, as quoted in Paul Schiavo’s informative notes to the CD. This movement contains the singing of three children’s voices, asking “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile?” (Why us? Why the star?). Morlot has three boy sopranos, identified as Benjamin Richardson, Kepler Swanson and Andrew Torgelson, who acquit themselves very well here. Ozawa used two boys and a girl on his recording and Salonen’s account, which is on the same CD as the cello concerto and Correspondances
, also has three boys. Apparently Dutilleux did not specify the makeup of the children. All three recordings excel in different ways. Ozawa’s has the authority of the dedicatee and superb playing by the orchestra. His recorded sound is the clearest with the percussion making the greatest impact. The downside is that his live recording betrays the presence of the audience especially when listening on headphones. Morlot’s is also a live recording, but one would not guess that there is an audience present. At the same time, the sound is not as clear as that provided for Ozawa. It still makes plenty of impact and the performance itself leaves little to be desired. The brass playing is outstanding throughout and the bluesy trumpet and trombone solos in the last movement come off especially well. The very ending with the temple block, clear but quiet and then just fading away, is extremely effective. Salonen on his recording has the advantage of the most expressive boy soloists, who sing warmly and sweetly and whose diction is the clearest of all. Salonen also brings out subtleties in the scoring that make his account so attractive.
To sum up, Morlot and the Seattle Symphony compete well in this new recording and can be favoured for their particular coupling of works. They make an eloquent case for the composer, as do the others noted above. Tortelier’s is still the one to have if you want both symphonies together. Salonen’s recording is indispensable alone for the Correspondances
and they also do the other works proud. Ozawa’s The Shadows of Time
would still be my first choice, even with the audible audience, because of the impact it makes. For the cello concerto, though, I am tempted to choose this superb new one by Xavier Phillips as the best of all ... for now at least.
Seattle Symphony Media’s production is first-rate, containing a glossy booklet with color photos that provides useful information on the performers and succinct notes on the works. In addition, it includes a full listing of the orchestra members — something I wish more labels would do.
I look forward to future recordings by this enterprise and hope they will give us more Dutilleux.