Steph Power reviews a National Orchestra of Wales performance featuring works by Dutilleux, Debussy, and Mozart, conducted by Thomas Søndergård.
Henri Dutilleux so nearly lived to see his 100th birthday, which would have fallen on the exact day of this concert, January 22nd 2016. But he died three years ago, in May 2013, and so we are left to honour his centenary without him – and without that other distinguished, long-lived French composer: Dutilleux’s nemesis, Pierre Boulez, who died earlier this month aged 90. Of the two, seemingly antithetical, figures, it is of course the latter who is far better known, and as much for his brilliance as a conductor as for his youthful polemics, institutional reach and uncompromising modernism. Yet Dutilleux, too, was a fastidious composer, subjecting pieces to lengthy processes of revision to the despair of publishers and commissioners. He too – albeit far more overtly heir to Debussy and Ravel – shared an obsession with matters timbral and textural and, in his own way, has proved highly influential: it is notable, for instance, that his pupils should have included the renowned ‘spectralist’, Gérard Grisey,* for whom the fundamental, acoustic properties of sound (as opposed to, say, mathematics or other underlying principles) were all-important creative drivers.
In Dutilleux’s music, mystery and illusion abound; not simply as atmosphere or ‘impressionist’ effect, but embedded deep within the structure. Timbre and harmony become inextricably linked, for example, so that it becomes hard to know precisely where one stops and the other begins, especially in dense textures. Each of his two pieces in this imaginative, beautifully performed ‘concert of two halves’ from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales showed how Dutilleux’s chords shimmer with overtones particular to his carefully chosen instrumental groupings, creating layers of contrapuntal mirage. The first, Métaboles, dates from 1962-4 and Dutilleux has described it as ‘where I [first] succeeded in fully realising myself in music.’ Almost a concerto for orchestra, the array of colours is astonishing as Dutilleux ‘metabolises’ or evolves his material through five, continuous but distinctively orchestrated sections. Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård and his fine players rose to the work’s many challenges, bringing an architectural sweep as well as attention to detail to the evocatively titled ‘Incantatoire’, ‘Linéaire’, ‘Obsessionnel’ (this incorporating a perhaps ironic nod to certain serial techniques), ‘Torpide’ and the final ‘Flamboyant’. The opening section’s unisons alone might have proved exposing of tuning vagaries were not these musicians so adept at listening and responding to one another.
Beguiling stuff indeed, and passionately carried into Sur le même accord; a ‘Nocturne’ for violin and orchestra which was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2001-2. Dutilleux was drawn to the ineffable realms of night as he was to Proust and Baudelaire, and here he applies his beloved ‘progressive growth’ to a short meditation ‘On the same Chord’, as the title suggests. From her opening phrase, soloist Akiko Suwanai proved supplely responsive to Dutilleux’s flowing lines and sonorities, and there was some wonderful baton-passing to and from members of an orchestra on superb form (notably, with Principal Cellist, Alice Neary). In places, the piece calls to mind the sensual harmonic rhythms of Berg’s Violin Concerto, and Thomas Søndergård / Suwanai articulated a subtle sense of pulse throughout; as they did in the ensuing UK premiere of Debussy’s Nocturne for violin and orchestra (1892-6), one of many works started and then abandoned by Dutilleux’s radical predecessor. We can thank Robert Orledge for so adroitly gathering the sketches together and fashioning them into a completed work, in this as in many other cases (most substantially, Debussy’s unfinished opera on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher). Here there was languor and bitter sweetness of expression as might be expected, but also open textures and playful swerves that cleansed the palate after the rich Dutilleux.
The completion of works by deceased composers always raises issues of authorial control, and no example has proved more contentious than that of Mozart’s Requiem, famously left unfinished on the great man’s untimely death in 1791. That this centenary celebration should be headlined by a requiem might look odd on paper, but it was not inappropriate following what amounts to the passing of an entire era of postwar composers in recent years. Here, a downsized orchestra was joined by a reduced BBC National Chorus of Wales (superbly primed by Artistic Director, Adrian Partington) and four excellent soloists to perform the most longlived version of Mozart’s swansong: by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Since the 1950s onwards brought increased scrutiny of his efforts, poor Süssmayr has been scorned and reviled by many, only to enjoy a recent rehabilitation: Stephen Oliver once wrote that ‘a glow-worm would be a better composer’ than Mozart’s hapless pupil, and that the Requiem has ‘the feel of a massive ancient cathedral held together with bits of plastic’. By contrast, the Dunedin Consort’s 2014 reconstruction of the work’s first ever performance in David Black’s edition of Süssmayr’s version has attracted wide acclaim.
However, few listeners care about the wrangling of experts – just as internecine contemporary-composer warfare passes them by. Regarding the Mozart, they’d prefer simply to be moved, terrified, comforted and ultimately uplifted by what they hear – and, for those in the packed St David’s Hall, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales did not disappoint. Thomas Søndergård’s tempi felt spot-on and his balancing of the various forces was well judged in the space, for all that the soloists were positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the onstage chorus. In any case, the last-minute inclusion of Rebecca Evans’ clear and lustrous soprano could not but help elevate the performance to another plane. Mezzo, Jennifer Johnston; tenor, Timothy Robinson and bass, Alastair Miles rose admirably to match her unfussy artistry – which reached its culmination in a magnificent Lux aeterna – as did the chorus with a delivery by turns threatening and mournfully beseeching, but always clear and vigorously sung. Of the orchestra, with its lovely strings and darkened woodwind and brass, trombonist Donal Bannister deserves special mention for his sonorous Tuba mirum duet with Miles.
From the processional grandeur of the Introitus and the Handel-inspired double fugue of the Kyrie, to the angst-ridden fury of the Dies Irae (so reminiscent of Don Giovanni’s casting into hell); the poignant lament of the Lachrimosa and the surging hope of the Agnus Dei, Mozart’s Requiem combines a neo-baroque sensibility with a forward-looking, urgently emotional drama. Whatever the truth surrounding its commissioning, uncompleted writing and many subsequent versions, it has become lodged in the popular mind as signifying the mystery of death itself. As BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Cardiff University School of Music continue to celebrate the life and achievements of Dutilleux this spring, it’s worth recalling that, however different in temperament he may have been, the Frenchman shared with Mozart a profound humanism that wasn’t reliant upon religious faith, but was deeply rooted in the resilience of, and restless search for authenticity within, the human spirit.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, January 22 2016
Dutilleux – Métaboles
Dutilleux – Sur le même accord
Debussy, compl. Orledge – Nocturne (UK premiere)
Mozart, compl. Süssmayr – Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
BBC National Chorus of Wales
Conductor – Thomas Søndergård
Violin – Akiko Suwanai / Soprano – Rebecca Evans / Mezzo-soprano – Jennifer Johnston / Tenor – Timothy Robinson / Bass – Alastair Miles
* Tragically, Grisey died in 1998, aged just 52.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to hear on iPlayer.
Header photo of Dutilleux © Guy Vivien