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Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Pages de jeunesse (Youthful Pages)
Sonate pour piano, Op.1 (1948) [25:09]
Sarabande et Cortège (1942) [7:00]
Sonatine pour flûte et piano (1943) [9:20]
Choral, Cadence et Fugato (1950) Choral [2:03]; Cadence et fugue [3:25]
Sonate pour hautbois et piano (1947) [11:25]
Pascal Godart (piano); Marc Trénel (bassoon); Vincent Lucas (flute); Daniel Breszynski (trombone); Alexandre Gattet (oboe)
rec. March-May 2007, Paris
INDÉSENS INDE087 [58:42]

This album is a reissue of Indésens INDE004 from 2007. The recorded contents are identical to the original release, except that the Piano Sonata now opens the album. It is rather unusual for record companies to reissue a disc after less than a decade. The centenary of Dutilleux this year is likely to have been the reason.

The works featured here are the earliest surviving works by Dutilleux. He was not exactly young when he wrote these pieces but he destroyed most of the compositions he wrote before 1945. These are the only survivors from his early period. The pieces for winds and piano were all commissioned 'solos de concours' (exam pieces) for the Paris Conservatoire. As these were meant to test students’ abilities, they cover the entire compass of the instruments and are technically demanding. Unlike many other such works, these have genuine artistic worth, and have since cemented their places in the repertoire. Each of Dutilleux’s 'solos de concours' was dedicated to the professor who taught the featured instrument at the Paris Conservatoire at the time.

The French school of wind playing from the middle of the twentieth century was characterized by light, bright and transparent tone, with ample use of vibrato, and virtuosic technique. The present-day French school has deviated a lot from that. Tone has become darker and warmer, with less ample use of vibrato, though virtuosity remains. The changes, instigated by the internationalisation of orchestral sound, are the results of evolutions in reed design (in the case of oboe and bassoon) and instrument design, and to a smaller extent, changes in playing technique.

This album features some of the finest French wind players of the current generation. When the recording was made, all three woodwind performers were principal players with the Orchestre de Paris, while trombonist Daniel Breszynski was playing with the Paris Opera. All of the performers are graduates of the Paris Conservatoire.

Pascal Godart opens the album with Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata Op.1. As the title suggests, Dutilleux considered this work his first opus. It is dedicated to his wife Geneviève Joy, a brilliant pianist that Dutilleux met at the Paris Conservatoire. Joy recorded this work, although I have not heard that recording. Godart possesses a vast canvas of tone colours and deploys this wonderfully in the Sonata. For the rest of the album, Godart takes a back seat and accompanies the various soloists.

The earliest piece on this album is the Sarabande et Cortège from 1942, dedicated to Gustave Dhérin, Professor of Bassoon at the time, and conceived for the French-system bassoon. Until the 1970s, French bassoonists exclusively played French-system instruments. They have a lighter and brighter tone than the German-system bassoons, and a much freer and easier top - like Pavarotti vs. Domingo. Nowadays, a number of bassoonists in France, including Marc Trénel, are playing German-system bassoons. The limitations of the latter are apparent in the Sarabande et Cortège. Trénel, who in 2009 became the first ever first prize winner on bassoon in the prestigious Munich ARD Competition’s 57 year history, has to slur to the climactic top E and top F in the final cadenza; Dutilleux asked for them to be articulated. Extreme high notes aside, Trénel gives as good a performance of this piece as anyone has committed to disc. He displays a fine sensitivity to the dynamic nuances as well as admirable tonal control and impeccable technique - except in the third bar from the end of the Sarabande, where the note combination is impossible to play cleanly on German-system instruments.

The Sonatine for Flute and Piano was dedicated to Professor of Flute Gaston Crunelle (incorrectly given as Gaston Courelle in the booklet), who gave the first performance with the composer on the piano. It is a wonderful piece that has rightfully cemented its place in the repertoire. Vincent Lucas studied with Michel Debost, who was a student of Gaston Crunelle, thus claiming direct lineage to the performing tradition of Dutilleux’s Sonatine. The opening Allegretto is played with a suitably mysterious mood, while the daunting passagework is tossed off with apparent ease. Vincent Lucas plays with elegant tone and consummate musicality, without the automatic and incessant vibrato that is the hallmark of many flautists, including adherents of the old French school.

Choral, Cadence et Fugato was written for the 1950 concours of the class of André Lafosse. It is considerable shorter than the other 'solos de concours' featured here. The piano introduction to the opening Choral reminds me of the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. The trombone plays a long legato melody, which tests the student’s ability to play with a seamless legato, something Daniel Breszynski does with distinction. The Cadence is a short cadenza with increasing virtuosity that leads to the Fugato, itself a tour de force for the trombone player. Breszynski plays with an assurance in technique as well as a tone that is always well controlled.

The Sonate for Oboe and Piano was written in 1947 for Pierre Bajeux’s oboe class. Dutilleux was dissatisfied with the last movement, and was furious when he found out a recording of the work was made. This Sonate is deceptively difficult, as it requires very fine tonal and dynamic control, including long sustained passages of soft playing in the high range, with an octave slur to the top F while diminuendo to pp. Alexandre Gattet meets the technical challenges with aplomb. However, his round and somewhat dark tone, a far cry from the old French oboe school of Pierre Pierlot and Maurice Bourgue, doesn’t quite provide the wide palette of colours ideally required here. The long-drawn melody in the middle of the Scherzo (starting at [0:54]) could have had a more seamless legato, and in general the Scherzo could use a more biting staccato. The finale feels a bit slow to me — it is taken at minim=88, instead of minim=96 as marked in the score — and it is not helped by the four-square playing of the simple, song-like melody by Gattet.

I wonder how many brilliant pieces by Dutilleux are lost to us, because these surviving pieces from Dutilleux’s early period are of genuine artistic worth. We can only wish that he hadn’t destroyed his other early works.

The programme notes, written in French, provide insightful information on the pieces as well as detailed biographical information on the performers. Unfortunately, the English translation is neither idiomatic nor always accurate. I found myself having to go back to the French original often in order to gain an understanding of the text, even though I don’t read French.

Dutilleux was given a copy of the original recording before it was officially released. His thoughts on these works and on this recording could be gleaned from a letter he wrote to Yves d’Hau, transcribed in the booklet in its original French only. The gist of it is that he enjoyed writing the pieces and was pleased with the performances by the Orchestre de Paris principals.

These early works by Dutilleux are usually presented in recital discs featuring the respective instruments and coupled with works by other composers. There is another all-Dutilleux disc featuring most of these works, but it does not feature the Choral, Cadence et Fugato for trombone and piano and the performers there were not brought up in the Paris Conservatoire tradition. The performances on this album are first rate throughout, and some are among the best versions available. If you want these works on a single disc, you do not need to look elsewhere.

Wai Kit Leung



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