DUTILLEUX: Sur le Même Accord*; Les Citations; Mystère de L’Instant; Timbres, Espace, Mouvement / *Augustin Hadelich, violinist; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Ludovic Morlot, conductor / Seattle Symphony SSM1012
This disc, the third devoted to the music of Henri Dutilleux, completes the brief series that began with SSM1001 a couple of years ago. These recordings have received rave reviews and, in fact, Vol. 2 won a Grammy…but not for Best Classical Recording. It won the Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo by violinist Augustin Hadelich, who makes a reappearance here on Vol. 3.
Now, as it turns out, this is not going to be a positive review, at least not of the music. Of the performance and sound quality I can only marvel, but as it turns out Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) was a composer of abstract enigmas, and I found the music on this Vol. 3 as well as on the first two volumes (all three of which have now been released as a set, SSM1013) not so much boring or ugly (though you are welcome to find it that yourself) so much as simply pretentious drivel. Thus I have chosen to discuss him by the name “Doodly-oo,” because his music just doodles along. In fact, considering the length of some of these works, I would go so far as to call him “Doodly-oodly-oo.” (Yes, I know the correct pronunciation of his last name is “Doo-ti-low,” but “Doodly-oo” fits his music much better.)
At this point I am certain that some educated academic, reading this post, will assume that I know nothing about music if I cannot appreciate the clever construction and subtlety of Doodly-oo’s music. I assure you that I can and do appreciate its cleverness and subtlety, but as the late Rafael Kubelik once said, music that strives to be clever is just that and does not appeal to the emotions. And music that doesn’t appeal to the emotions simply doesn’t appeal to me.
Nor do its proponents claim that it does. From the booklet notes by Paul Schiavo:
Dutilleux was…a fastidiously independent artist, informed about current musical developments but abstaining from the various compositional trends – serialism, chance procedures, electronic sounds, minimalism – enjoyed vogue at different times since the end of World War II…the spirit of his work seems related not so much to that of his most prominent contemporaries (Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen and others) as it is to Debussy and Ravel. Like those earlier French composers, Dutilleux developed a refined style of writing that owes more to an imaginative handling of sonority than to any systematic approach to composition.
Now, let’s analyze these words and see if they apply to the music as actually heard, shall we?
As I listened to movement after movement and work after work by Doodly-oo, what I heard was a succession of cold, icy, abstract sounds scored for an orchestra of biting winds and brass with somewhat opaque strings. This orchestral texture represents the typical French orchestra from the days of César Franck, but the cold and ice of his compositions do not. On the contrary, what I heard over and over and over again were the kind of abstractions one hears in electronic music except played by real instruments, uncomfortably overlaid on strict classical form (passacaglia, theme and development, etc.). One could postulate that Debussy did the same thing with La Mer, that exquisite symphony that doesn’t sound like a symphony, its music unfolding like a series of seemingly unrelated sound washes while actually adhering to strict form, but Debussy’s music nearly always alternated coolness with warmth. Moreover, Debussy’s sound progressions—though elusive to general audiences whose ears were not attuned to their sophistication (particularly in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande)—always had an underlying pulse, not always perceived but always felt.
None of this is true, to my ears at least, in the music of Doodly-oo. Even my closest and most attentive listening produced little more than irritation because the music was so consistently cold and so consistently abstract. It put me in mind of two ping-pong balls bouncing around in a canister of dry ice until they cracked and broke up into shards. In short, it is intellectually interesting the same way the limitless expansion of pi is interesting to a mathematician but having about as much practical value, which is nothing more than showing off. I was sometimes caught up short when a movement or a work was finally over because there seemed to be no preparation for a finish, just a finish. In fact—and this is going to sound like a contradiction—the harder I listened to the music the colder, more irritating and less interesting it became. After a while, all I really wanted to do was to open a black hole and drop Doodly-oo and all his music into it.
Another quote from Schiavo: “Dutilleux was a supremely subtle artist who…alludes to time in different ways.” He sure does. And in the process, he loses contact with the most basic element of any music, even Debussy’s and Schoenberg’s, which is some sort of discernible rhythm. What Schiavo and Morlot evidently see and hear as an asset I see and hear as a liability.
In short, Doodly-oo’s music is difficult to access and, worse yet, not worth the effort to meet it halfway. Now, I’m sure many readers of this article feel the same way about the music of Olivier Messiaen, but I personally don’t. Not all of Messiaen’s music is as abstract as Doodly-oo’s; on the contrary, some of his works, such as the opera Saint Françoise d’Assise, I find overly sentimental, even mawkish, and much of his organ music I find emotional in a bad way: dark, even sinister in quality. But at his best, Messiaen communicated to his listeners. Even the occasionally enigmatic Turangalîla Symphony or the somewhat abstract Éclairs sur l’au delà, his final orchestral work, have a wonderful mystical quality about them that transcends the complexity and somewhat off-putting form. And is there any modern work written to capture the angst of World War II as frightening as parts of Quartet for the End of Time? You are certainly free to dislike Messiaen’s music—during the 1960s, several of Stereo Review’s critics wrote at length excoriating it—but you can’t deny that he is at least trying to communicate emotionally. Doodly-oo doesn’t give a crap whether you find his music appealing or not. And I don’t really give a crap about him, or it, in return.
If, however, you are one of those who think Doodly-oo was a genius, this is a recording that will satisfy your needs. In all three CDs Morlot invests a great deal of both painstaking detail and an attempt to make the music interesting. He almost succeeds, but his subject matter defeats him, much like the skilled poetry reader who tries desperately to make John Lennon’s Revolution No. 9 make sense. As for me, I even find the abstract music of George Crumb more appealing, and that’s not saying much.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley