Henri Dutilleux Celebration

Concerto in D
Diptyque – Les Citations
Ainsi la nuit
Sonata for Violin and Cello
Mystère de l’instant [revised for eighteen strings, cimbalom and percussion]

Marianne Thorsen & Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power (viola) & Paul Watkins (cello)

Marianne Thorsen (violin) & Paul Watkins (cello)

Philippa Davies (flute)

Nash Ensemble
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 2 April, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Henri Dutilleux (b.1916)This “Henri Dutilleux Celebration”, as it was billed, was conceived by the Nash Concert Society and given by the Ensemble in the presence of the 92-year-old composer, who still looks to be in remarkably good health.

He was presented after the concert with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, given as part of a generous tribute from Yan Pascal Tortelier, who spoke affectionately of the friendship between his father (Paul) and the composer; they attended the Paris Conservatoire together and formed a strong camaraderie.

Dutilleux joins Franch contemporaries Boulez and Messiaen in receipt of the medal, in this case recognition of a compositional output focusing keenly on quality and economy. Here a beefed-up Nash Ensemble of eighteen strings, cimbalom and percussion proved the point in a reduction of Mystère de l’Instant, the final item in a crowded programme.

The reduction in forces in no way stripped the music of its previously notable intensity, for this was a thrilling performance that if anything amplified the composer’s sense of colour, imagination and mystery. Christopher Bradley’s cimbalom was placed at the back of the platform, and made a striking intervention in the ‘Soliloques’ section, one of many instances of ear-opening textures.

Yan Pascal TortelierYan Pascal Tortelier helped to conjure vivid string sonorities, from stratospheric violins down to a bass sound that lost little of its body from the full version for string orchestra, four cellos and two double basses supplying the power. Toward the end Tortelier brought off a fierce accelerando, checked only by Duncan McTier’s eerie double bass harmonics, before running through to a thoroughly convincing finish.

The chamber music output of Dutilleux is relatively slight in volume, and was here placed in the context of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, his prime compositional influences. The latter’s Concerto in D began the evening as a bold statement, the crisp ensemble between the eighteen strings again presided over by Tortelier. The second theme of a vivacious first movement was gracefully balletic, while the ‘Arioso’ took a quick glance in the direction of Tchaikovsky before the finale urgently asserted itself.

Philippa DaviesThe lights were almost completely extinguished for Debussy’s Syrinx, with Philippa Davies in complete control of the melodic nuances, crucially leaving the right amount of silence between phrases.

Conversely, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello was impressively vital and came across as a series of dances, far from the austere textures this work can sometimes suffer in performance. Marianne Thorsen and Paul Watkins were the energetic performers, though the cellist suffered a broken string in the jabbed pizzicato of the second movement. Returning with a different instrument, his tone quality was noticeably different, the attack quelled somewhat. However the slow movement coaxed beautiful muted sounds from both instruments, while the outer ones kept a close dialogue as well as a strong forward momentum. What also came across was the remarkable writing of Ravel, who manages to manipulate the duo into a singular voice, or, in the case of the closing bars, four.

The first half allowed a rare performance of Dutilleux’s Diptyque, a two-movement piece commemorating both the 75th-birthday of Sir Peter Pears and the death of Dutilleux’s close friend Jehan Alain. The style of the latter was clearly glimpsed in the headlong rush with which the harpsichord began the second part, a sense of calm returning toward the end. Oboist Gareth Hulse was a commanding presence, though attention to detail of colour was just as important, found through the combination of oboe, double bass, harpsichord and percussion.

Ainsi la nuit, the composer’s sole string quartet to date, closed the first half. Though occasional breaks in the seven sections disrupted the overall structure a little, the well-drilled quartet (Thorsen, Malin Broman, Lawrence Power & Watkins) hurried through ‘Nocturne 2’ and ‘Litanies’. The overall structure was clearly glimpsed, however, and in ‘Suspended Time’ the work reached a clear emotional goal.

In all three Dutilleux works the strong sense of mystery alluded to in the presentation prevailed – and in Mystère de l’instant, found a performance proclaimed by the composer to be one of the best of his works in any time or place.

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