Released just after a year following the composer’s death (Henri Dutilleux died in May 2013 at the age of 97, not 96 as the booklet note tells us), this disc follows on from a series of concerts given by the Seattle Symphony that featured the music of the great French composer; indeed The Shadows of Time was recorded live at one of these concerts in November 2012. The programme covers almost half a century of Dutilleux’s creativity beginning with Symphony No.1 to The Shadows of Time, with perhaps his masterpiece, the Baudelaire-inspired cello concerto – Tout un monde lointain ... – sensibly programmed in the middle.
The First Symphony (1951) is a work that I have long had a particular affection for – although its composer had at best an ambivalent relationship to most of his early music. Some reappraisal of these works may well be due and this fine recording of Symphony No.1 is a good place to start. Yes, we may be able to point to a string of influences – Ravel and Debussy of course but also Roussel and certainly Bartók (a composer Dutilleux admired enormously), but also the music could quite simply be by no other composer. Here are Dutilleux’s harmonic and rhythmic fingerprints and his orchestration is already totally individual. Listening to this performance I can almost hear the composer excitedly using his favourite word, the importance of a particular sonorité – clearly in the mind of Ludovic Morlot (who writes touchingly about his friendship with Dutilleux) and is alert to every tiny fluctuation of texture. The Symphony’s traditional four movements hide a particularly ingenious formal plan, the first being a ‘Passacaglia’, whose theme is mysteriously plucked out by low strings and builds to a vivid climax. The dynamic range here is wide, beautifully balanced and never over-powering – and no detail is over-looked in the glittering ‘Scherzo’, the rather restless ‘Intermezzo’ slow movement or the ‘Finale con variazione’. This is music that given the chance could surely become much more popular than it is and this Seattle recording is the best possible advert.
The liner note carries a quote from Dutilleux regarding the cello-soloist on this recording, Xavier Phillips: “...he fully owns this work and evokes the very essence of its title – all a distant world”. Phillips clearly has command of the piece technically, the fearfully high writing (inspired by Rostropovich's virtuosity) seems to hold no terror at all – every note rings true and the appearance of the cellist’s ever-changing moods – abandon, enigmatic, elusive, sensuous – is perfectly balanced against the orchestra. Phillips doesn't just play the notes, he lives them, even the softest incantation, and the cadenza is jaw-dropping! This is a wonderful performance of one of the greatest of cello concertos.
The Shadows of Time, although hardly programmatic, was begun around the time of the 50th-anniversary of the end of World War Two. Dutilleux (born 1916) rarely spoke of the years of Nazi occupation of Paris but admitted the work reflected “distant events whose intensity, in spite of the impress of time, has never ceased to haunt me”. Central to the work’s inspiration was the sound of children's voices heard in the school playground that backed on to the composer’s studio, captured in the rather exposed roles for three solo voices, confidently taken here by the boys. In many ways a ‘concerto for orchestra’ this is not only perhaps the most personal of Dutilleux's creations but also one of the most demanding. Every orchestral section has a chance to shine but special mention should be made of the double bassists who have to be on the verge of acrobatic and also play almost-impossible chords of harmonics, thrillingly managed here. Seattle's brass section sounds particularly accomplished, the trumpets being asked to re-produce what are in effect riffs (jazz and in particular the voice of Sarah Vaughan were other Dutilleux enthusiasms), which they do completely naturally. It is pretty much impossible to tell that this is a concert performance.
This release has some tough competition, however, not least from an outstanding Deutsche Grammophon disc, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, that includes two of the works on this disc (cello concerto and Shadows), recorded in the presence of the by-then frail but still razor-sharp composer, but the Seattle Symphony shows itself more than worthy of comparison – indeed, something rather special is happening in Seattle as this thrilling and accomplished release shows.