Dutilleux Renders the Human and the Sublime with Equal Measure

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"De Vincent à Théo," the setting of a Van Gogh letter in Henri Dutilleux's song cycle Correspondances, begins simply and earnestly. Except for a single wandering note, the tune is diatonic – like a folk song – as the painter describes his yearning to paint the world in autumn.

When he sees the stars, he writes, life seems enchanted – and after that word, enchantée, the music turns enchanted, too. A pause, and then the soprano sings a falling melody using all the notes of the scale, each one sustained by the orchestra until they become a shimmering, twelve-note constellation, transporting the listener into the painter's eerie, feverish, visionary realm.  

This is Dutilleux's genius, to render both the human and the sublime with strokes from the same brush. On a new recording, also called "Correspondances," he finds his ideal interpreter in composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who brings to life the most ethereal details of Dutilleux's scores without losing sight of their core humanity.

In discussing Dutilleux's music, Salonen emphasizes not only the Frenchman's technical mastery as a composer – "every note has been weighed with golden scales" – but above all praises his "wisdom," his music's ability "to reveal what makes us human." 

Take the moment where Dutilleux's The Shadows of Time, in a movement dedicated to Anne Frank, brings out a trio of singing children.  In the hands of a lesser artist, it would be kitsch; here, the realization is so discreet and unaffected that the sound is shockingly fresh.

Salonen's collaborators are up to the task, too. Cellist Anssi Karttunen loses himself entirely in Dutilleux's passionate "Tout un monde lointain…" while still achieving its exacting coloristic demands.  In Correspondances, Barbara Hannigan – whose furious coloratura stunned New York Philharmonic audiences in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, can make her soprano sound like a theremin or temper it with body and warmth.

In short, these are essential recordings of an essential composer. One's first encounter with them may be a revelation, but the vastness and subtlety of what has been achieved here may require a lifetime of relistening.

"Dutilleux: Correspondances" (Esa-Pekka Salonen and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France)
Deutsche Grammophon | Pre-order

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