It has been a long time since I have been a satisfied reader of The New Yorker, but I have Alex Ross to thank for reminding me that today is the 95th birthday of Henri Dutilleux. This is also a case where I cannot argue with the Wikipedia entry, which describes him as “one of the most important French composers of the second half of the 20th century.” France was an exciting environment for innovative thinking about music following the Second World War, and I shall not go into a tedious laundry list of all the names that established themselves during this half-century. However, because the San Francisco Symphony has provided several opportunities to listen to Dutilleux’ music as interpreted by some highly-informed conductors, I cannot avoid confessing a personal bias towards the man. Indeed, the next such opportunity will occur during the week of April 14, when the subscription concert in Davies Symphony Hall will include Tout un monde lointain…, his 1970 five-movement cello concerto commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, which will be performed by soloist Gautier Capuçon with conductor Charles Dutoit.
What has drawn me to Dutilleux and maintained my interest in him is the significant role that sonority plays in his musical rhetoric, a trait that has influenced at least some of his students, such as the French composer Gérard Grisey. Thus, for those who do not live in a city as sympathetic to Dutilleux as I do, this composer has the advantage of being championed by ECM New Series producer Manfred Eicher, one of the most skilled technicians in “capturing sound in all of its necessary subtlety.” Dutilleux has also benefitted from the musicians who have worked with Eicher to advocate his compositions, particularly Robert Levin, who understands the essence of Dutilleux’ rhetoric as keenly as that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Those who think I am exaggerating in my enthusiasm are invited to visit the Amazon.com page for D’ombre et de silence, Levin’s ECM CD of Dutilleux’ piano music. The audio samples hardly do justice to the full sonorous impact of these scores. Nevertheless, the sample of the first movement of his “Figures de Résonances,” a composition for two pianos that Levin recorded with Ya-Fei Chuang, comes at least tolerably close to capturing the compelling nature of Dutilleux’ sense of rhetoric. If it creates a craving for more under better listening circumstances, then that should be proper honor for this composer on his 95th birthday!