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Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Symphony No.2 ‘Le Double’ (1955-59) [27:58]
Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou, La nuit étoilée) (1976-78, rev.1991) [19:41]
Mystère de l’instant (1989) [14:58]
Françoise Rivalland (cimbalom, Mystère)
Orchestre National de Lille/Darrell Ang
rec. L’Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, September 2015 (Symphony & Timbres), March 2016 (Mystère)
NAXOS 8.573596 [62:38]

The best way to understand the achievement of Henri Dutilleux is place him on a trajectory from Debussy, Ravel and Albert Roussel. Much of his music is in antithesis to the experimentation of Pierre Boulez et al., although his orchestral mastery ranks alongside that of Olivier Messiaen. Not for Dutilleux was the cul-de-sac of ‘total serialism’ or of electronic experimentation. On the other hand, he did make use of elements of jazz, and ‘traditional’ serialism: he could be sympathetic to certain techniques used by the avant-garde if it suited his purpose. The characteristic that sums up (for me) Dutilleux’s success must be his skilful use of instrumental and orchestral colour.

The opening work on this exciting and imaginative CD is the ‘early’ Symphony No.2 ‘Le Double’ which was composed between 1955 and 1959. The work was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was premiered on 11th December 1959, conducted by Charles Munch.

The Symphony is scored for two ensembles: a 12-member chamber group and the full orchestra. Paul Conway, in the liner notes, suggests that this ‘formation allows for subtle interplay between the two musical protagonists as they join forces, confront each other and offer reflected images in a series of shifting inter-relationships.’ I wonder at the use of the word ‘protagonist’: I feel that much of the musical dialogue is supportive and constructive, rather than antagonistic. It is this duality that has given the symphony its subtitle, ‘Le Double.’ The composer has described it as ‘a musical play of mirrors and of contrasting colours’. In the first two movements, the effect is a dreamlike world, where the two ‘orchestras’ reflect and sometimes distort each other. In the powerful and rumbustious finale, the composer lets his hair down and indulges his passion for jazz.

There is an interesting pendant to Dutilleux’s Symphony No.2. After the premiere, it was pointed out to the composer that the work seemed to have an affinity to Gaugin’s painting ‘D’où venons-nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons-nous?’ (‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’). I am not sure if this helps the listener (see the record sleeve for the painting) however the composer accepted the fact that each movement ends on a questioning note, except for the last. He changed this ‘oversight’ for subsequent performances.

Timbres, espace, mouvement was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington in 1976. It was premiered on 10 January 1978, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. The inspiration for the work came from Vincent van Gogh’s famous and ubiquitous painting ‘Starry Night’. This canvas had been painted in June 1889 and presents a view from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It has been on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York since 1941. For a generation of listeners that enjoyed 1970s pop music the painting will be familiar as the source of inspiration for Don McClean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ (1971) which cleverly and movingly presented the story of Van Gogh’s life and death for the ‘pop’ generation.

Henri Dutilleux has written that Timbres, espace, mouvement is not a tone poem or musical depiction of the painting, but a ‘record of the composer’s response to it.’ He found, like most people, that the painting was ‘an enormously powerful and disturbing masterpiece’. The technique that Dutilleux uses to create his ‘impression’ of the ‘sense of space and upward movement’ is his unique use of instrumental colour. The orchestra is unusual in that there are no violins or violas. To counter this, the composer has added to the woodwind section as well as scoring for a wide variety of percussion.

Timbres, espace, mouvement is written in three movements. The first and last are titled ‘Nébuleuse’ and ‘Constellations’. These are connected by a short interlude, added in 1991, scored mainly for 12 cellos. Orchestre National de Lille under Darrell Ang give full weight to the marvellous orchestral colouring of the work. It is a sympathetic response to the swirling forms of Van Gogh’s haunting and coruscating canvas.
Mystère de l’instant is a fascinating work by any definition. It was commissioned by the Swiss conductor, impresario and patron Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra and was first heard at the Tonhalle in Zurich on 22nd October 1989.

The liner notes explain that the work is constructed as a series of ten contrasting ‘snapshots’ which are presented without a break. Each ‘snapshot’ is standalone: there are no musical relationships between them, no sense of being ‘cyclic.’ Titles of these include ‘Litanies’, ‘Rumeurs’, ‘Echo’ and ‘Embrasement’ (burning). The notes do not mention that the ninth section, ‘Metamorphoses’ is based on a six-note theme musically spelling Sacher’s name in a concatenation of German and Italian notation.

The titles may or may not be helpful to the listener in navigating their way around the work. I found that I could conveniently ignore them. The key to this work is (again) the impressive instrumentation and effective use of tone colour creating ‘a miraculous diversity of mood, textures, registers and techniques.’ Mystère includes the skilful use of the cimbalom (Hungarian instrument, descended of the dulcimer with stings stretched over a soundboard and struck with hammer). The clever thing is that Dutilleux uses the cimbalon as ‘colouring’ and does not allow this distinctive instrument to dominate or overstay its welcome. The other instruments include 24 strings and percussion. The title translates literally, ‘The Mystery of the Moment’.

The liner notes by Paul Conway give a detailed introduction to these three ‘masterpieces.’ Brief notes are included about the Orchestre National de Lille and their conductor Darrell Ang. The performance is always satisfying and constantly displays Henri Dutilleux’s scintillating and sensuous scores in the best possible light.

This is a splendid CD that presents the listeners with three undoubted masterpieces from the composer’s pen.

John France



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