D’ombre et de silence
Robert Levin piano
Ya-Fei Chuang piano
Recorded December 2008, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The music of Henri Dutilleux, now approaching his 95th year, has been sadly dwarfed by that of Ravel and Debussy, among whom he is often the third wheel in categorical groupings of modern French music. Represented only cursorily on ECM thus far (12 Hommages A Paul Sacher), he at last receives a treatment that is as meticulous as he is. Pianist Robert Levin first met Dutilleux during a 1979 residency at Nadia Boulanger’s Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau, since which time the two have maintained close friendship. When producer Manfred Eicher bid Levin (familiar to label listeners as violist Kim Kashkashian’s go-to accompanist) to record a solo recital, Dutilleux’s name emerged early in discussions, though the material needed to be concert tested and approved before the studio would be graced with its bracing refractions.
The Petit air à dormir debout (1981), which begins the disc, is the first of a handful of pieces written for children. Others include 1950’s charming Blackbird and the pensive Tous les chemins… mènent à Rome of 1961, each a pocket of halting lyricism from which both composer and performer lift handfuls of stardust before committing fingers to keys. We see that every note has its place as the galaxy of the programming begins to take shape. The Sonata (1946-48) that anchor’s the disc’s first half is the composer’s Opus 1. It is also a masterstroke of compositional acuity. Every nuance leaps off the page, not least because of Levin’s supremely fluid gestures, as if self-aware. Though one of the composer’s most widely known works, it bristles with fleeting handles of articulation, none of which ever quite holds its shape long enough to be grasped. Dutilleux adds sharp edges to these potentially impressionistic reveries, making them all the more delicate to handle.
Intended as interludes for radio broadcasts, the “Prélude en berceuse” and “Improvisation” from Au gré des ondes (1946), reprised at the album’s conclusion in their completed context, sound like bagatelles from the afterlife. One can almost hear the static that might have surrounded their original appearance. Like Blackbird, Résonances (1965) quickly skitters through Messiaen’s shadow before stumbling over its own light. This is followed by a counterpart of sorts in the form of Figures de résonances (1970/76), for which Levin is joined by wife Ya-Fei Chuang. The two play as one, passionate allies of the melodic thread that binds them. The final section feels like an echo in the ribcage, its strength waning with every heaving breath. Two more fleeting statements, Mini-prélude en éventail (1987) and Bergerie (1946) embrace a triptych of preludes. More like an overcooked pastry than a sandwich, its outer layers flake off at the slightest touch while the center awaits its first tongue to burn. Levin saves the best for last, laying the nostalgia on thick with an homage to Bach and the enthralling Etude that is its partner.
These works are, as Levin stresses in his more than insightful notes, conceived and written “molecule by molecule.” Not only is this music that follows no footsteps, but music that would rather not leave any at all. Levin touchingly dedicates this recording to the memory of Dutilleux’s wife, Geneviève Joy, who passed on just before its final production. An accomplished performer, Geneviève’s own interpretations of her husband’s music, in Levin’s estimation, “provide the lodestar to all of us who seek to follow in her footsteps.” If these performances are any indication, hers must have been downright otherworldly.