DUTILLEUX: Symphony No. 1; Tout un monde lointain; The Shadows of Time – Xavier Phillips, cello/ Benjamin Richardson, Kepler Swanson, Andrew Torgelson, boy sopranos/ Seattle Sym./ Ludovic Morlot – Seattle Sym. Media SSM1001, 78:29 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The music of Henri Dutilleux, who died in 2013, defies an easy categorization. Eschewing the trendy experiments of others of his generation—Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen and others—he remains in the long line of color-oriented composers whose fascination with sound often seems to equal the appreciation of rich, thick harmonies and fleeting melodic invention, as produced by the “founders”, Debussy and Ravel. And like Samuel Barber, his output, though small, is also of a tremendously high quality, each note playing a significant role in the overall whole.
The 1951 Symphony No. 1 is also his first piece for orchestra and is based on traditional, though non-typical symphonic forms like the passacaglia. To me it has quite the post-romantic feel about it, thrilling dynamic range and swelling pseudo-melodic passages that emphasize drama and emotion over purely coloristic exercises, though that element is present. It should be heard more often. Tout un monde lointain (A Whole Distant World) is quite simply a cello concerto, composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, one of Dutilleux’s most ardent champions. This dreamlike piece is based on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, luxuriant and hothouse in its intricate tapestry of color. Cellist Xavier Phillips plays it with suitable exotic and far-away proclivities, ringing each note to the fullest with his sumptuous tone.
The Shadows of Time was completed in 1997, and explores the composer’s fascination with the juxtaposition of light and darkness and their interaction with time. The movements, “Hours”, Memory of Shadows”, “Waves of Light”, etc., show the intensity of the expression the composer wishes to engage, prompted primarily by the evocative memories of an event that always haunted him, World War II, where the composer had to stand through the Nazi occupation of Paris. But this program finds little practical display in the music, and instead is filled with allusions to its title in ways that are mostly apprehended only in a very subtle manner. The scoring for orchestra and three children’s voices adds a dimension of the ethereal and opens up the aural interpretation to a very subjective listener’s realm.
Since the abnegation of responsible artistic recorded history by the major record labels, more and more orchestras are taking things into their own hands, and the Seattle Symphony, with its rich recorded legacy has now joined them. The orchestra sounds as full and technically proficient as it always did, with Maestro Morlot providing dignified and exceptionally educative leadership. Benaroya Hall in Seattle serves as a splendid recording studio.