Feature Review – A Celebration of Henri Dutilleux

Written by: Janet Notenoquah

Friday 29 April 2005, Purcell Room, London

A Celebration of Henri Dutilleux, a concert given in the presence of the composer, and including several of his works, music by Ravel, and premieres of pieces by Andrew McBirnie and Kenneth Hesketh


Figures de résonances

San Francisco Night [London premiere]

Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou

Les citations

Trois préludes for piano

Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher


Prayer [World premiere]


Les Grandes Plaines du Jour [World Premiere]


Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé

David Alexander (piano)

Daniel Becker (piano)

Simon Blendis (violin)

Douglas Finch (piano)

Garry Magee (baritone)

Jerome Pernoo (cello)

Marie Vassiliou (soprano)

Julian West (oboe)

The Continuum Ensemble

Philip Headlam (piano)

A last-minute change of events meant that Henri Dutilleux, who turns 90 next January, was also able to attend this pre-concert talk and concert at the Purcell Room. Dutilleux delighted and charmed the audience with recollections about his work and important events in his career. The discussion, led by Kenneth Hesketh, offered valuable insight into the influences surrounding his music.

The first half of the concert opened with a work written between 1970 and 1976 for the 25th-anniversary of the piano duo – Genevieve Joy (Dutilleux’s wife) and Jacqueline Robin. These pieces are experimental in nature whereby one piano often serves as a reflection of the other piano. The mirror writing of the piece recalls a similar idea used in Tout un monde lointain, Dutilleux’s cello concerto, written between 1967-70. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Karl Lutchmayer was unable to perform this piano duo with Douglas Finch. David Alexander came to the rescue at the last moment. Regardless of the difficult circumstances, both pianists managed to create the close dialogue that forms such an important feature of this work. They were responsive to the sense of shadow and mirroring that are an integral part of these four studies on resonance. It was a provocative start to the programme.

The second piece, “San Francisco Night”, setting a poem by Paul Gilson, is an earlier piece written in 1963 as a homage to Francis Poulenc. The vocal line, incantatory in style, is accompanied by a piano part with two clearly defined layers that combine a rich chordal texture with a bass line acting as an almost Debussy-like anchor. Both the pianist and the soprano managed to capture the essence of the poetic content of melancholic sobriety. Through the angular qualities of the vocal line, Marie Vassiliou imbued a particular solemn and reflective feature in her interpretation communicating good command of the French language. Philip Headlam beautifully complemented the vocal part by setting the initial mood. He skilfully maintained the harmonic intensity of the song whilst supporting the vocal part.

In Andrew McBirnie’s new piece for oboe titled Prayer, he transmitted his own experiences of his Christian-influenced childhood with the more negative forces of organised religions that seem to create so many conflicts across the globe. This short piece attempted to offer a desire for the need of reconciliation by integrating two divergent sources – the Islamic ‘call to prayer’ and a metrical psalm tune from the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. The incantatory quality of the work reflected a similar approach used by Dutilleux in some of his songs; I refer to “San Francisco Night” and “Je revais que je vous portais entre mes bras”. Julian West gave a captivating performance of McBirnie’s solo oboe piece, evoking sonorities normally beyond that of the instrument. At one point one could hear other instruments growing from the resonance of the various dialogues apparent in the music.

Continuing on the theme of persecution and ambivalence, “Les Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou”, written between 1950 and 1954, outline the tragedy of World War II. From the same literary source of Jean Cassou, Dutilleux had first composed “La geôle” in 1944 which is dedicated to his brother Paul who spent five years as a prisoner in Stalag VIIIC. Dutilleux reread the work of Cassou and decided to set three other of the Sonnets, of which two were published. The first of the two songs, “Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés” is more forceful and passionate with a vocal line that is declamatory in character. The second song, “Je revais que je vous portais entre mes bras”, expresses the more pensive and solemn emotions of the sonnet.

Both Garry Magee and Philip Headlam gave a powerful performance of the first song. Headlam carried a strong sense of the rhythmic aspect of the sonnet supported by the forceful opulence of Magee’s superb voice. By the end of the song, Magee filled the room with the intensity and hysteria of the music based on events of the Second World War. In the second song, both artists could have gone further in their depiction of the despair set within the poetic text. The change of mood cried out for a stronger commitment to the sorrowful expression apparent in the words and music. Fortunately both singer and pianist immersed themselves more fully into the atmosphere of the song by the end.

Dutilleux began composing Les Citations in 1985 whilst he was composer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Festival. In June 1990, he composed the second movement, adding a double bass to the instrumental ensemble. The opening movement contains a brief fragment from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in homage to the opera’s interpreter, Peter Pears. The second movement includes a quotation from one of Dutilleux’s friends and colleagues who was killed in action during World War II in June 1940, Jehan Alain. There is also another quotation from a theme and variations by Alain with a motif attributed to Janequin that had been used in one of his organ pieces. For Dutilleux, the title of the diptych, Les Citations, seemed appropriate. As a piece that is rarely performed, it was with delight to have heard, here, such a high calibre of ensemble playing and an acute sense of the piece’s rhythmic design. The balance of the ensemble fully aided the vast array of events bringing alive the rich texture of the music as well as the humorous nature of the work.

The organisation of the concert’s second half involved the separation of Dutilleux’s three piano preludes interspersed with two other works – Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher and the premiere of Hesketh’s Les Grandes Plaines du Jour. Although an interesting choice of arranging the programme, the connection between the three piano preludes was not allowed to be heard.
It was after a gap of 25 years that Dutilleux returned to the solo piano repertoire with Trois Preludes. He first began in 1970 on the first two preludes which were initially titled ‘d’Ombre’ and ‘De silence’. After some revisions the first prelude changed to the new title of ‘d’Ombre et de silence’ dedicated to Artur Rubinstein. In 1977 he completed the second prelude, ‘Sur un même accord’. It was not until 1988 that the third prelude, ‘Le jeu des contraires’ was composed as a commission for the Friends of the Maryland Summer Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts of the University of Maryland’s International Piano Festival. It is dedicated to Eugene Istomin who initiated the commission. After further revision to all three preludes, they were then published as a set in 1994.

The first prelude evokes a fairly impressionistic atmosphere with its sustained harmonies and sombre atmosphere. The second prelude, as suggested in the title, is based on a single chord, acting as a springboard into the passages that each time follows the return of the chord. It is a study in timbre exposing Dutilleux’s interest in the phenomenon of resonance. The last prelude draws on a linear type of writing with a gradual narrowing of intervals and wedge-shaped structures. The mirror-like processes are evident in the harmonies and rhythms illustrating processes analogous to the linguistic palindrome (as in the word ‘laval’). It is the most extended and virtuoso of the three preludes. Douglas Finch gave a tremendous performance. His acute sense of the resonance that forms such an important aspect of this work filled the hall. Finch’s amazing virtuosity lifted the music from the page as the various contrasting elements of the piece came to life. It was a compelling performance that respected the essence of the music.

Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1976) was composed for the 70th-birthday of Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor, teacher and musicologist. Mstislav Rostroprovich commissioned 12 pieces for solo cello from various composers including Berio, Britten, Ginastera, Henze and Lutoslawski. Dutilleux composed the first movement for this commission later adding the other two movements. The six-note motto of the entire piece is composed on Sacher’s name and demands a wide range of technical prowess from the player throughout; there is a reflective second movement and a fast scherzo for the third movement. Jerome Pernoo gave an exciting and engaging performance of music that is a concerto for solo cello. Pernoo’s skills in the technical feats of this piece were astounding as he remained in total control but at the same time taking the necessary risks that provided a spectacular rendition of this rarely played work.

The premiere of “Les Grandes Plaines du Jour” by Kenneth Hesketh, one of Britain’s younger composers, evoked the imaginative possibilities of the literary work on which it was based – “Les états et empires du soleil” (The Empires and States of the Sun) by Cyrano de Bergerac. The two sections of this work (which run without a break) are drawn from episodes specifically dealing with the eponymous hero’s landing on the sun and the interaction with the native beings. Kenneth Hesketh describes the sections of the piece: “The quasi-scientific postulation by de Bergerac, that ‘the principal of matter (on the sun) is to constantly be in flux’, influenced the first section. A short linking section (L’envoi) winds this section down and presents the previously heard material in a more fundamental form. The second section (the Lighter Regions) begins simply, using pizzicato natural harmonics to form an immediate aural contrast from the previous section. Short duets in the form of repeated figures that alternate between arco and pizzicato provide the structural backbone to this section. The piece ends with extremes of tessitura, from open G string to rapid altissimo passages.”

Simon Blendis’s interpretation of this dramatic work conjured an ambience beyond the realms of this world. The violin writing, so beautifully mastered by Blendis, produced the required effects that, as described above, were varied and wide ranging. At one point I felt that I heard a most striking sense of orange, possibly the sun? Synaesthesia! It was an exciting performance!

The final work highlighted so well the influences of Ravel on Dutilleux’s music. It was a beautiful end to the evening. This unusual ensemble of nine players (string quartet, two flutes, two clarinets, and piano, the latter being played by Daniel Becker) written in 1913 demonstrates Ravel’s exquisite skills in a piece that offers a range of colours and moods inherent in the poetic content of Mallarmé’s work. “Soupir” is an impassioned but fading love song and “Placet futile” is a playful plea from a mischievous but devoted Oriental servant to his Princess. “Surgi de la croupe et du bond” is an extremely difficult poem that evokes loneliness and thirst likened to a vase that is empty of water. Ravel pushed his tonal musical language to its limits as heard from the very dissonant harmonies, octatonic passages (Stravinsky’s influence no doubt), bitonalism and a kind of unresolved atonalism. The Continuum Ensemble brilliantly complemented Marie Vassiliou’s rich and warm timbre. It was an enchanting and magical end to a programme celebrating the life and works of Henri Dutilleux, which including two new works by composers who studied with and who admire Dutilleux.

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