French composer Henri Dutilleux in 2004 (Photo by Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Ravel, Dutilleux, Debussy: Quart de nuit (Deux-Elles)

Norman Lebrecht is left wanting more Dutilleux


It is a grim fact of musical life that, when a composer dies, his music goes into limbo for at least ten years. In that time, music directors and programmers shove the complete oeuvre into a drawer and wait, they say, for the reputation to settle. For a few lucky composers, a decade passes and there is a revival. For the others, just silence.

There’s a case to be made that Dutilleux is the most important French composer of the second half of the 20th century

The French composer Henri Dutilleux died in May 2013 at the age of 97. All his life Dutilleux struggled to make himself heard against the all-controlling modernism of Pierre Boulez on one hand and the ornithological Catholicism of Olivier Messiaen on the other. Dutilleux was his own man, wary of doctrines and ideologies. Although he lived in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, his music evokes the flutters and squeaks of a bleak country landscape at night – in much the same way as Bela Bartok does in his string quartets and György Ligeti in his later works. Dutilleux’s music, while modern in its disavowal of melody, is rooted in organic reality in ways that Boulez could not achieve and Messiaen merely simulated. There is a case to be made that Dutilleux is the most important French composer of the second half of the 20th century – there, I’ve said it.

The oeuvre is fairly small, but compelling. His 1970 cello concerto for Rostropovich, tout un monde lointain (a whole distant world), uses music as an intermediary between humanity and infinity, an extra-terrestial dialogue. His 1976 string quartet ainsi la nuit (and so, the night) explores an individual’s fears and hopes as darkness falls on a lunar landscape. There are hints of Bartok and Webern and an unmissable undercurrent of Ravel, updating the senior composer to contemporary relevance. The quartet is shaped in seven movements with some bloodyminded writing for string players, lots of plucked noises and heavy hands. The finale is called ‘time suspended’ and it feels like a gift. For almost 20 minutes, Dutilleux takes us out of the relentless march of progress, into an Einsteinian relativity of time and space. It works better than meditation, much better than most forms of self-medication.

The Ruysdael Quartet, a Dutch ensemble, give a really passionate account of ainsi, placed between Ravel’s F major quartet and an arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune. It’s a fine album that leaves me wanting more, more Dutilleux, especially.

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