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Henri Dutilleux: Petit air à dormir debout – Sonate – Au gré des ondes – Blackbird – Tous les chemins…mènent à Rome – Résonances – Figures de résonances – Mini-prélude en éventail – Trois préludes – Bergerie
Robert Levin, Ya-Fei Chuang (piano)
Recorded in the Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano (December 2008) – 74’00
ECM 14315-05 – Booklet in English

This exquisite new disc of piano music by Henri Dutilleux rises to the top of a stiffly competitive discography, drawing on the clarity, balance and uncanny good taste that make Robert Levin’s Mozart recordings so impressive.

In the Sonate, Levin’s precise articulation and voicing in the first two movements is mesmerizing. The final “Choral et variations” allow Levin to be thunderous in the opening theme, but he still maintains a melodic lucidity that engrains the movement’s germinal motif even deeper in the listener’s mind. He is absolutely dazzling in the toccata-like variations, and his arrival at the dénouement of the entire sonata reminds us that this work, Dutilleux’s self-proclaimed “Opus 1”, foreshadows similar climactic moments in the composer’s later oeuvre.

The three enigmatic Préludes, spanning some 15 years of compositional development, encapsulate more entirely Dutilleux’s mature musical rhetoric. In music more capricious, shadowy and nuanced than the sonata, Levin convinces with clarity adhering admirably to the composer’s dynamic and articulation markings. The most recent prelude, “Le Jeu des contraires” can, in the wrong hands, sound episodic despite its entrancing piano textures, but Levin creates a convincing teleology in his interpretation, drawing the listener relentlessly forward and upward to the final stratospheric gestures.

In the other major mature work on the CD, the two-piano Figures de résonances, Levin is joined by his former student Ya-Fei Chuang. Dutilleux has composed numerous wonderful antiphonal effects into the four movements, and ECM has smartly separated the two pianos quite drastically in the recorded space, emphasizing the passing off, echoing and resonance effects that are intrinsic to the score.

The Au gré des ondes suite and Bergerie are not regarded by Dutilleux as belonging to his “true” output, but they provide illuminating listening and show the composer’s progress towards the Sonate. One can hear similar harmonic and textural devices at work in the opening melodic statement of “Prélude en berceuse”, “Improvisation” and the first movement of the Sonata, pointed up by ECM’s inclusion of those two movements twice on the CD. Levin gives fully committed performances of these works and of the later short works, mostly incidental in nature. Blackbird has always been one of my favorite French miniatures, and the miniatures from the 1980s, Petit air à dormir debout and Mini-prélude en éventail, borrow from the soundworld of the contemporaneous orchestral works, especially the violin concerto L'Arbre des Songes.

Levin and ECM trump even Geneviève Joy’s accounts of some of the works, due largely in part to the superior instrument used and the more defined, perfectly captured piano sound. Levin himself writes the informative and touchingly personal liner notes, and he can join the prestigious legacy of superlative musicians that were and are dedicated to Dutilleux’s music. This recording is a triumph and an essential addition to the library of any lover of great music.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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