Alex Ross in his book The Rest is Noise (2007) recalls the incident when Henri Dutilleux had ‘presented his vibrantly diatonic First Symphony, (Pierre) Boulez greeted him by turning his back’. This was a time of particularly bitter foment in French music-making. Boulez, one-time pupil of Messiaen, had decided he would exploit serialism to its limits with ‘total serialism’. However, there were other trajectories in French music at this period including the post-war achievements of ‘Les Six’ and the ‘last impressionist’ Maurice Duruflé. It is easy to generalise, but Henri Dutilleux is in a direct line of descent from Debussy and Ravel, by way of Albert Roussel. Yet this is not the whole picture: Dutilleux was not afraid to pick upRead more techniques that he could effectively use. Whilst eschewing the radical avant-garde, he made use of tone-rows and jazz.
The Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1951 and is Dutilleux’s first major essay for orchestra. The work’s premiere fell on 7 June 1951 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Orchestre National de France conducted by Roger Désormière.
The constructional principles that Dutilleux makes use of in his symphony are transformation of themes and motifs rather than classical procedures of development. There is an apparent danger in this sort of process that the work could appear to ramble. This is not case. One reason for the maintenance of interest is the skilful orchestration. Another is the clever ‘exposition’ of the material that carries the listener along on the composer’s journey: the listener is barely conscious of the techniques used to structure the music. The liner-notes sum up the work well – Dutilleux creates ‘a kind of musical poetry, with which he produces images captivating with intense luminosity.’
The opening ‘Passacaglia’ makes use of 35 repetitions of the ground bass to great effect. Listen to the jazz-band influenced brass chords. The ‘Scherzo’ is powerful and vivacious, creating a magical, will o’ the wisp sound-world. The ‘Intermezzo’ is strangely introverted, very beautiful and not a little bizarre. In the ‘finale, con varizioni’, the composer begins ostentatiously but gradually changes the mood into one of considerable seriousness and a deeply felt beauty.
Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou (1954) is one of a number of works that Dutilleux composed for the voice and orchestra. The two sonnets were taken from a book of poems ‘composed in solitary confinement’ (1944) by the French writer, art critic and poet, Jean Cassou (1897-1986). After a short-lived appointment as Curator at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris he was sacked by the Vichy government. He later became a member of the French Resistance. The sonnets were written whilst he was interned in a prisoner of war camp; they reflect his ‘emotions and thoughts’ of the period.
The first sonnet is entitled ‘Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés’ (There was nothing but splintered tree trunks’). Dutilleux creates a violent and scary mood that reflects the poet’s description of a desolate, war-torn landscape. The second song is ‘J’ai rêvé que je vous portais entre mes bras’ (I dreamt I was carrying you in my arms). This is a more romantic song, and is commanding in its effect. The poet seems to be trying to balance future hopes with his desperate situation. The orchestration of both these songs adds to their powerful effect on the listener. Paul Armin Edelmann presents a dramatic performance of these two sonnets. Due to copyright reasons the texts have not been included in the CD booklet.
Métaboles was composed over a five year period between 1959 and 1964 for the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. It was duly premiered by them in January 1965.
The work is in five overlapping sections, each bearing a title – Incantatoire, Linéaire, Obsessionel, Torpide and Flamboyant. The composer begins with an idea at the start of work – he transforms it slowly through the first movement until it bears little resemblance to its original concept. He then uses this derived idea to begin the process over again. So the parts (movements) of the work are related to a certain extent, they evolve, but do not have any obvious cyclic references. A vast range of percussion adds significant colour to this highly imaginative and satisfying work.
The title is interesting. Reflecting the organic growth of this work from one idea into another, the composer decided to avoid using the obvious ‘Metamorphoses’. This had already been used for diverse works by Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss. Dutilleux resorted to a dictionary where he found the present title, Métaboles, from the Greek: metabolism = change, restructuring: metabolic = changing. It is an appropriate title.
The liner-notes are excellent and provide a decent introduction to the composer and the works on the CD. The orchestra and conductor give a fine account of this complex and beguiling music. The ambience of the recording is excellent and allows the intricate detail of these pieces to be heard to advantage. I note that Capriccio (and the same orchestra) has recently released CDs of music by two other 20th century masters – Bernd Alois Zimmerman and Luigi Dallapiccola: I hope to hear these in the near future.
For listeners who do not know the music of Henri Dutilleux this is an ideal introductory album: enthusiasts of the composers will demand this disc for their collection.