Armengaud Plays Dutilleux

GP790 cover

DUTILLEUX: Piano Sonata. Le Loup (version for piano). 3 Préludes / Jean-Pierre Armengaud, pno / Grand Piano GP 790

Pianist Jean-Pierre Armengaud, a pretty old guy to judge from his photo, is considered to be a leading exponent of French music. Thankfully, he at least chose a composer who continued to write music into the late 1980s, Henri Dutilleux. The “World Premiere Recording” (break out the spotlights and brass fanfares!) on this disc turns out to be the original piano version of the composer’s ballet, Le Loup (The Wolf).

We begin with the oldest work on this CD, the Piano Sonata of 1944-48, written at a time when conductor Charles Munch first became aware of him, later becoming a champion of his symphonies and other orchestral works. One is immediately aware of Dutilleux’s unusual take on modern harmonic language, wrapped in lively French rhythms. This is music that will surely confound and even repel the average concertgoer but which I found immediately interesting, even riveting; clearly one of his best pieces. The first movement is full of tricky passages, little fast, falling figures in the right hand, eventually moving away from the strongly rhythmic opening section into a more open musical space at a much slower tempo for the development. It’s almost as if Dutilleux had been jogging along an atonal highway when he suddenly spotted some flora and fauna that clearly came from outer space on the sidelines, and stopped to investigate it. Later on, when the tempo picks up again, there are some tricky rhythms in the right-hand part. A highly original and imaginative piece that I enjoyed tremendously.

And I will say this, Armengaud is a stylish and energetic interpreter who fully immerses himself in the scores he performs. Even in the slow, somewhat spacey second movement, which seems to be comprised almost entirely of simple block chords in the left hand against an equally simple. high-lying melodic line in the right, he holds your interest. The third movement, an extended “Choral et Variations” that runs almost 12 minutes, is a continuous whirl of sound that envelops the listener with its swirling figures and upward keyboard runs in the right hand.

Le Loup is, of course, the composer’s famous ballet score from 1953. In my review of John Wilson’s excellent orchestral performance of the score, I mentioned that although there are some very tricky rhythms which are clearly not easy to dance to, the music is more tonal than usual for Dutilleux. Although Armengaud does a very fine job with the score, I have to admit that I prefer the orchestral version better. And—very odd—different sections of this long piece seem to have been recorded in different venues and/or with different microphone setups, because the aural perspective of the piano changes dramatically, sometimes within different sections of the same piece.

I was, however, much more taken by the three Préludes. Here, Dutilleux very carefully condensed his style, producing works that were not only densely packed but which had a lot of content. Unlike the early Piano Sonata, he remains in relatively slow tempi wit shifting colors and moods, but the music’s very lack of density brings the listener even closer to the heart of each piece, and in these works Armengaud is truly superb. This is very spacey music, similar to Almeida Prado’s Cartas Celestas.

To sum it up, then, a very fine recital although I find the piano version of Le Loup a bit too bare-sounding for my taste (no fault of the artist).

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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