High Quality Performances of Dutilleux and Centenary Tributes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tanguy, Anderson, Pécou, Hesketh,  Dutilleux: Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Pascal Rophé (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 27.1.2016. (PCG)

Eric Tanguy (b.1968) – Affettuoso ‘In memoriam Henri Dutilleux’ (2013)

Julian Anderson (b.1967) – Shir Hashirim (2001)

Thierry Pécou (b.1965) – Les liaison magnétiques (2013)

Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968) – Graven Image (2008)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) – Le temps l’horloge (2006, revised 2009)

This concert formed the second part of a centenary tribute to the French composer Henri Dutilleux (the first was given last Friday) and coupled the final work by the composer with two French pieces written as conscious tributes to him on his death three years ago and two British works which Peter Reynolds in his programme notes argued showed his influence. The basic idea was interesting, and if the results were somewhat mixed, the contents of the evening were rewarding not least because of the high quality of the performances.

We began with the Affettuoso by Eric Tanguy, which opened with a sustained melodic phrase that breathed some of the same atmosphere as Debussy’s Martyre de Saint-Sébastien – a line almost romantic in its emotional feeling, which could even have benefited from greater warmth from the rich strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales but in which the profile of the music was always clear. Indeed the work was very extrovert for a memorial piece, though the central section with its ponticello strings had a haunted quality.

Julian Anderson’s setting in Hebrew of verses from the Biblical Song of Songs was dedicated to Dutilleux on the occasion of his 85th birthday, but there seemed little evidence otherwise of the influence of the fastidious French composer. Elizabeth Atherton had to struggle to rise above the positively noisy orchestration at the start, although the lack of texts in the programme was not a severe hardship when much of the Hebrew text was reduced to vocalise. Nevertheless I felt that the orchestra’s virtuosity was largely wasted on a score that seemed to be devoid of any emotional atmosphere – a severe disadvantage given the nature of the lyrics – and only the word “Alleluia” towards the end was audible. Even there, though,  the vocal line did not convey a sense of rejoicing; it just sounded like hard work, although Anderson had by this stage thinned out the accompaniment to allow the voice to come through.

But if the Anderson work did not really justify its revival after fifteen years, the more contemporary memorial to Dutilleux by Thierry Pécou was even less impressive. The orchestra was reduced down to a chamber body of seventeen players, but the use of bass saxophone, double-bass (or pedal) clarinet and tuba threatened to unbalance the sound altogether. But although the bulkier instruments were featured prominently, what they were given to play was severely lacking in real musical content. We were assailed with flutter-tonguing from all departments – possibly reflecting sounds of nature, since the work was written while the composer was studying in the Andes – which rapidly outgrew their welcome except as an exhibition of orchestral technique. The prevailing series of ‘effects without cause’ was only relieved by a delicate flute solo and a brief dance-like passage for the violin, both of which were cut off before they had any chance to develop. The second movement, continuous with the first, introduced an underlying rhythmic pulse where the motoric percussion almost recalled Carl Orff but without the melodic content – just a series of discords to underpin the essentially one-dimensional texture.

After the interval the score Graven Image by Kenneth Hesketh was much more impressive in musical terms, although apart from its inspiration as a memento mori the connection with Dutilleux seemed tenuous at best. There was a chilling sense of frozen stillness at the outset which was immediately arresting, and a firm purpose was apparent in the rifting horn lines, glittering textures that surrounded them, and spectral violins. The central scherzo-like section had an almost Bartók-like sense of ferocity and impulse, and the chordal writing for three flutes in the final pages had the same sense of uneasy repose that is to be found in the last movement of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. This was a BBC commission that thoroughly deserved its revival.

Elizabeth Atherton returned to the platform for the Dutilleux song cycle which closed the programme, and seemed to be pleased to encounter music that lay comfortably for the voice. Her French diction was excellent, and we could hear a good proportion of the words; but the BBC are to be condemned for their failure here to provide texts and translations of the French poems, since it is clear that Dutilleux wished to engage closely with the lyrics by Jean Tardieu, Robert Desnos and Baudelaire. The final waltz-like setting of Baudelaire’s hymn to intoxication Enivrez-vous (added three years after the work’s première with Renée Fleming) inhabited a rather different world to the more intense poems that preceded it; but the reflection of the rhythmic impulse in the melodic line demonstrated clearly precisely what had been lacking in the Pécoud score we had heard earlier, with effects placed at the service of the music and not as a substitute for it.

Three of the composers represented on the programme – Tanguy, Anderson and Pécou – were present in the hall to receive the applause of a small but generally sympathetic audience, whose cheers were however reserved for Atherton in the Dutilleux songs at the end. The composers must nevertheless have been delighted with the quality of the performances which they experienced under the precise if undemonstrative beat of Pascal Rophé. 

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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