DUTILLEUX: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. Violin Concerto, “L’Arbre des songes.” 1 2 Sonnets de Jean Cassou.2 Timbres, Espace, Mouvement avec Interlude. Metaboles. Tout un Monde Lontain (A Whole World Away).3 Mystère de l’Instant.4 The Shadows of Time. 5 JEHAN ALAIN: Prière pour nous Autres Charnels (Prayer for Us Mortals) (arr. Dutilleux)2,6 / 1Olivier Charlier, violinist; 2Neal Davies, baritone; 3Boris Pergamenschikov, cellist; 4Edward Cervenka, cimbalom; 5Edward Burrowes, boy treble; 6Martyn Hill, tenor; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor / Chandos CHAN 9853
Exactly a year ago, in July 2016, I reviewed a recording of Henri Dutilleux’s Sur le Même Accord, Les Citations, Mystère de l’Instant and Timbres, Espace, Mouvement by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ludovic Morlot. In it, I was a bit snarky regarding the music therein, referring to it as “pretentious drivel” and calling the composer as “Doodly-oo” because “the music just doodles along.”
In time, however, I learned that it was more of the conductor’s fault for my impression and not necessarily the scores. I really enjoyed Renée Fleming’s performance of his Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou and Charles Munch’s recording of his Symphony no. 2, not to mention Mariss Jansons’ recording of the Violin Concerto, “L’Arbre des Songes” with Dmitri Sitkovetsky as soloist. Once again, I learned to my chagrin that, as the Rolling Stones once opined, “it’s the singer, not the song,” thus I am giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up to this sterling set by conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
It’s more than just having a better grasp of the music’s complexities and knowing what to do with them. In Tortelier’s capable hands, the music takes on a life of its own. It has energy and movement that Morlot was not merely unwilling but powerless to give it. The music’s timbral shifts are now discerned as part and parcel of shifts in meter and pulse. In short, the music is interesting. I even found that I liked his performance of the Second Symphony a shade better than Munch’s, and Munch is one of my idols. The symphony has more “bite” and drive under Tortelier’s direction, and sounds better related to the first.
In the music of Mystère de l’Instant, for instance, what sounded disjointed and pointless (to my ears, anyway) in Morlot’s recording has bite and drive in the hands of Tortelier. Some critics have rightly said that Tortelier pierces the music’s mysticism better than other conductors, but clearly this is not all he does. If it were, it would still strike my ears as fussy and pretentious. By easing up on certain notes and phrases and stressing others in the way a great linguist recites a poem. Compared to the unpracticed layman who has no elocution skills, the difference is like that of night and day. Even the little, scurrying violin figures in Prismes have meaning and purpose here; they did not in the Morlot recording. Everything was just prosaic.
Harmonically speaking, Dutilleux was related to Messiaen but by and large did not use as many “dark” chords and sinister dissonances, yet his reliance on nimbus-cloud-like formations of orchestral timbres bore a strong resemblance to the older composer. As I now hear it, Dutilleux was trying to convey mysticism, which put him in a direct line of descent from Debussy, but expressed it in a more direct and energetic rhythm. One of the really odd things about Metaboles and Tout un Monde Lontain is that, at the conclusion of each piece, Dutilleux suddenly jumps to a major chord completely unrelated to the preceding material to wrap things up. This was just about the only feature of each work that I found unnatural and out of place.
Toretlier conducts the Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou very well, but Neal Davies’ somewhat sttel-wool baritone timbre does the work no favors. Here I much prefer Renée Fleming’s recording with conductor Alan Gilbert on Decca, but by way of compensation I found Tortelier’s reading of L’Arbre des Songes more into the spirit of the music than Mariss Jansons. Oddly enough, I also liked the way boy treble Edward Burrowes sang on The Shadows of Time.
Since it was written in 2002, two years after the last of the recordings on this set, Tortelier apparently did not record Sur le Même Accord. This is a pity as it would undoubtedly be a classic reading, as most of these performances are, but the recording by the work’s dedicatee, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the Radio France Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur, is quite fine.
Highly recommended for all but the Deux Sonnets, although Davies’ woolly baritone also afflicts his part of Duteilleux’s arrangement of Jehan Alain’s Prière pour nous Autres Charnels.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley