MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Dutilleux City: Morlot and Seattle Symphony Continue Their Survey of the French Master

Dutilleux City: Thanks to the vision and musicianship of Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony, the Emerald City can legitimately claim to have become one of the globe’s top spots  to hear authoritative performances of the French master.

This weekend’s program includes a not-to-be-missed chance to enjoy Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement, which is being recorded for release as part of the third volume in  the SSO’s ongoing survey of his orchestral music on the house label. (Vol. 2, featuring soloist Augustin Hadelich, garnered the orchestra a Grammy in February.)

But nothing compares with the experience of this music in live performance. By now it’s a built-in expectation that Morlot and the SSO will sustain an almost superhuman focus when bringing a Dutilleux score to life — with the result that, to borrow Schoenberg’s famous encomium (re his student Anton Webern’s music): “every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel.”

It’s been fascinating to watch Morlot, over his now half-decade with the ensemble, inspiring the players to the level of poetic accuracy, of fluent command of an incalculably subtle idiom, such as was on display in last night’s performance. Even by Dutilleux’s standards, Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou “La nuit etoilée” (from 1978, with a section added in 1991) pushes the bar still higher.

Morlot gave a brief intro to the piece, accompanied by relevant visuals to contextualize some of the composer’s extra-musical inspirations: the constellations, a gorgeous interstellar nebula, and van Gogh’s famous painting cited in Dutilleux’s alternate title (“Starry Night”).

The music director explained that the last-named is reflected in the unusual scoring for a large orchestra, which however omits violins and violas: their lack focuses the registral weight at a lower band to evoke the nocturnal mystery especially at the bottom portion of van Gogh’s canvas.

The early Romantics had their “blue flower.” Dutilleux has his “blue flame,” as Morlot memorably characterizes the composer’s sound world, contrasting its unique incandescence with the more obvious brilliance of a yellow flame: “music that evaporates” before our ears, but not before kindling an extraordinary intensity.

None of this is “program music” in the old-fashioned sense — a soundtrack to the Big Bang, or an attempt to “illustrate” van Gogh’s painting. (Why would a masterpiece painting need to be illustrated anyway?)

A better way to think of the piece — which was certainly encouraged by this performance — is in terms of what the first part of the title itself indicates: timbres that move about in musical space, the mystery of sonorities as they begin to coalesce and cluster across the orchestral field.

A critical element here is the timing — not just what’s written in the score, but the unquantitatable rightness of overall pacing, of relation of part to whole, of the transition between ideas that should emerge in performance. Morlot tapped into and sustained the necessary sense of cosmic awe and mystery: source of our very capacity to experience beauty.

Especially captivating were the echoings of the long, sinuous melody that shoots across the orchestral canvas, as juxtaposed so effectively with Dutilleux’s watchmaker-precision scoring for his percussion section. (Terrific work from the woodwinds in particular, with a key role for Mary Lynch’s superb stylings on oboe.)

The piece’s spare but powerful climaxes aren’t narrative “events” or outcomes but announce sudden shifts of perspective, a kind of turning of the cosmic wheel. I also admired how Morlot countered the receding horizon of Dutilleux’s most amorphous gestures with a sense of finality in the score’s massive unisons.

How this composer achieved such rending beauty remains one of the mysteries of contemporary music — not the sort of beauty that washes lazily over a passive listener, but a co-creative beauty of imagination, requiring incarnation in sound…

The ensuing Beethoven — the Fourth Piano Concerto — marked a continuation of the SSO’s ongoing two-year cycle devoted to Herr Ludwig van. As usual with these strong contrasts, I couldn’t help but hear a few “foretastes” of those mesmerizing sinuosities from the Dutilleux in a few of Beethoven’s woodwind phrasings in the first movement, though I’m willing to concede that this might have resulted from some sort of psychoacoustic aftereffect.

Unfortunately, I have to report my deep disappointment in the contributions of the soloist, Imogen Cooper. The British pianist commands a formidable reputation on the international circuit — in particular for this repertoire — which is why I was all the more baffled by this experience.

Cooper’s point of attack and phrasing of the all-important opening solo immediately signaled the basic problem that, to this taste, bedeviled her account throughout. It was clear, clean … and bereft of poetry, personality, or point of view.

Despite Morlot’s efforts to tease out character from the orchestra’s interactions, the whole first movement came across as flaccid, too relaxed — mostly because the points of tension needed to anchor Beethoven’s serenely lyrical writing kept going slack in Cooper’s performance. Even that initial cleanness was offset at several points by notably strong left-hand attacks; but rather than suggest a particular reading, they simply made for an eccentric (and, frankly, off-putting) mannerism.

The middle movement accentuated the problem even more. Morlot whipped up the drama with sternly accentuated string recitative — the “wild beasts” to be tamed by Orpheus/the pianist, in the popular reading of this movement (which also anticipates the strategy of the Ninth’s finale.) Of this Andante Tchaikovsky wrote: “I know of no greater work of genius … and I always pale and chill when I hear it.”

But Cooper’s timid phrasings hardly initiated a dialectic, adhering instead to the same over-relaxed sonority at each entrance. Problems with coordination between Cooper and the ensemble recurred in the outer movements.

Morlot closed the program with the rarely heard final symphony by Prokofiev, the Seventh. Written near the very end of the Russian composer’s life, this is an enigmatic symphonic swan song: the big, sweeping, “Socialist Realist” rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet comes face to face with sonic images of innocence and childhood, of clocks winding down. It’s immensely accessible — and emotionally attractive, in the SSO’s rich-bodied but finely detailed performance — yet somehow riddling all the same.

Morlot played up the perplexing shifts in direction that accentuate the piece — especially in the curious second movement and in the final pages of the finale — as if to underscore the question marks that remain beneath the surface of such “simple” music.

–(c)2016 Thomas May All rights reserved


Filed under: Beethoven, Henri Dutilleux, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony


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