Piano Recital: John Chen (John Chen) (Naxos: 8.557823)
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Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916)
Complete Solo Piano Music
Born in Angers on 22 January 1916, Henri Dutilleux grew up in Douai, studying piano, harmony and counterpoint at the conservatoire there with Victor Gallois, before moving to Paris in 1933. At the Paris Conservatoire he studied with the Gallon brothers, as well as with Maurice Emmanuel and Henri Büsser, winning the Prix de Rome in 1938 with the cantata L'anneau du roi. Returning to France at the outbreak of war, he worked at the Paris Opéra; then, in 1945, began an eighteen-year tenure as director of music productions at Radio France. Since 1963 he has devoted himself to composition, while being in demand as a guest teacher in France and at summer schools abroad.
Although he has long been acknowledged as among the leading figures of his generation, Dutilleux's reputation rests on little more than a dozen major works, the result of an approach to composition which is as painstaking as it is methodical. His early works include a number of scores for theatre and radio productions (mostly withdrawn), as well as several songs and also test-pieces for the wind categories of the Paris Conservatoire. It was only with the Piano Sonata that Dutilleux felt he had created a work worthy to be regarded as his 'Opus 1'.
Composed during 1946-8, the piece was written for and dedicated to the pianist Geneviève Joy (whom Dutilleux married in 1946). Although its long-range processes are still relatively tonal, albeit with a strong modal colouring, the Piano Sonata is distinctive both in its inclination towards non-French models, notably Bartók, and in its adherence to large-scale classical forms, evincing a decidedly symphonic approach that separates Dutilleux from his contemporaries both older (Messiaen) and younger (Boulez). The work itself is cast in three movements that, while sharply contrasted in themselves, sustain a cumulative overall form, something that the composer went on to refine and also enrich in the two symphonies which he wrote at either end of the 1950s.
The opening Allegro con moto sets off with an animated theme in which melody and accompaniment are closely intertwined. Initiated by repeated notes in the left hand, the second theme, though more pensive, is so closely allied to the first both in its melodic contour and harmonic complexion as to be almost a derivative of it. It provokes the movement's climax, after which the first theme is reprised, leading to an assertive final flourish, before subsiding in the brief coda. The central Lent is in a subtly-employed A-B-A form: the first section unfolds calmly if hesitantly, before a livelier idea with a hint of march-rhythm assumes prominence; an elaborate harmonic progression, pervaded by the whole-tone scale, then leads back to the first section, itself modified and ending the movement in a deeply contemplative mood.
A 'finale' in every respect, the closing Choral et Variations begins with an imposing theme announced in imperious chords. There follow four substantial variations. The first unfolds in a stream of rapid, toccata-like figuration, the second is equally swift but much more melodically defined and builds to an impulsive climax, the third is a 'nocturne' of dreamy introspection that opens up the movement's expressive ambit accordingly, and the fourth variation is a headlong explosion of energy that drives the movement on to its culmination. The initial chorale theme is climactically recalled at this point, so bringing a movement that is effectively a 'sonata within a sonata' to a powerful and decisive close.
Although he has never since essayed a piano work of comparable size or stature (the orchestra being the preferred medium for his large-scale works), Dutilleux has contributed to the solo repertoire a number of characteristic miniatures. Most important among these are the Three Preludes that, while not directly conceived as a cycle (having been written in 1973, 1977 and 1988 respectively), form a microcosm of the composer's formal and expressive concerns over four decades.
The first prelude, D'ombre et de silence, looks back to the rarefied manner of Debussy's late piano music in its succession of harmonies that seem almost to melt from one to another over the course of the piece. The second prelude, Sur un même accord, is more reductive as a composition, a single chord sufficing for this study in the possibilities of keyboard resonance as the means of achieving formal continuity. The third prelude, Le jeu des contraires, is nearly twice as long as its predecessors, encompassing its composer's fascination with symmetry, whether harmonic, rhythmic or textural, within an unbroken span.
One of Dutilleux's tasks after his attachment to Radio France was the provision of musical interludes between programmes. Six of these were collated in the piano suite Au gré des ondes (1946): a succinct and always entertaining sequence that amply demonstrates the thirty-year-old composer's mastery in evoking earlier styles, prior to his conscious embarking on the discovery of a more individual musical language.
Prélude en berceuse is an unruffled study in limpid figuration over a rocking accompaniment that evokes Ravel in its chaste detachment, while Claquettes is contrastingly rapid in motion and humorous in its manner. Improvisation focuses on the simple but effective integration of melody and accompaniment, then Mouvement perpétuel amuses in its robust and incisive approach to a not dissimilar technical procedure. Hommage à Bach is a wistful 'air' whose melodic contour and figuration constitute a very French take on the Baroque master, before Etude rounds off the overall sequence with its irresistible rhythmic verve.
The remaining six pieces are all miscellaneous items, written for occasional or functional purposes that yet evince no lack of craft or quality on the part of this most fastidious composer. Bergerie (1947) derives from a collection of children's pieces entitled Jardin d'enfants, which title aptly evokes its innocent demeanour. Blackbird (1950) is a lively and often insistent evocation of the bird in question, while Tous les chemins (1961) is a touching and far from didactic teaching piece that was written for the Petite méthode de piano of Marguerite Long, known in particular for having given the première of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G in 1931. Very different in content is Résonances (1965), written for the collection Les nouveaux musiciens, and a considerably more exploratory piece from the composer's maturity that points towards future concerns. Petit air à dormir debout is a gentle study in texture and sonority, while Mini-prélude en éventail finds Dutilleux leaving his mark on even the most unassuming miniature.