The Seattle Symphony is no stranger to contemporary classical—earlier this year they earned a Grammy Award for their breathtaking recording of John Luther Adams’ innovative masterpiece “Become Ocean.” Over the years they have garnered international acclaim for their innovative programming, commissioning of new works, and extensive recording history—and they’re certainly not slowing down anytime soon.
The Seattle Symphony’s latest contemporary classical endeavor is a three-disc, multi-year recording project of all the orchestral works by the late French composer Henri Dutilleux. This August, they are releasing Volume 2 of “Dutilleux,” featuring a studio recording of the violin concerto “L’arbre des songes” (“The Tree of Dreams”) with violinist Augustin Hadelich and gorgeous live performances of “Métaboles” and Symphony No. 2 (“Le double”).
Under the directorship of French conductor Ludovic Morlot, the Symphony brings passionate virtuosity and drama to Dutilleux’s vividly colorful orchestration. In fact, Dutilleux’s refined ear for aural color and texture has led many to characterize him as the principal heir of Debussy and Ravel in the line of influential French composers. His music extends the legacy of these earlier composers while also adding a little more bite; his music’s rhythmic verve, dramatic urgency, and unapologetically frequent use of dissonance show clear ties to Bartók and Stravinsky.
But like the Impressionists, Dutilleux was also very inspired nature. His five-movement “Métaboles,” written in 1964, takes its title from the Greek metabolos, meaning “changeable.” Dutilleux cited the primary inspiration for the piece being the constant flux and ceaseless flow of nature—the ongoing transformations and metamorphoses of organic life.
The piece unfolds in five connected movements which musically imitate these evolutions. Each of the first four movements features a different family of instruments—woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion—allowing the Symphony to fully showcase its incredible breadth of musical talent. From the straining sonorities of the first movement to the sweet lyricism of the second, from the jazzy brass of the third to the pointillist palpitations of the fourth, the Symphony passes through each transformation seamlessly. The wildly chaotic fifth movement brings the entire orchestra back together in a bold and thunderous finale.
Next on the album is Dutilleux’s 1985 violin concerto “L’arbre des songes” (“The Tree of Dreams”) featuring violinist Augustin Hadelich. Dutilleux strays from the typical three-movement concerto form, instead opting for four movements connected by three interludes. Hadelich flies furiously up and down the fingerboard through each of the four distinct movements, showcasing his stunning technique and beautiful tone.
The first movement is rich with gorgeous, long-breathed melodies that shoot straight up into the stratosphere. The second movement skitters and jitters across restless rhythms before transitioning to the wistful and rhapsodic dream that is the third movement. The piece ends with a wildly theatrical fourth movement that showcases Dutilleux’s brilliant orchestration and bold style. Each of the wide-ranging movements are connected by strikingly imaginative interludes—listen for the third, in which Dutilleux actually composed an episode that is meant to sound as if the orchestra is tuning and warming up!
“All in all,” Dutilleux wrote in a preface to his score, “the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree.”
Evolution is a key theme of Dutilleux’s “Le double” symphony as well. He strayed from the standard symphonic procedure of juxtaposing musical themes, instead creating his symphony from the variation and transformation of short musical ideas. He also made innovative use of the orchestral timbres: within the full ensemble he created a smaller group of 12 instruments—oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harpsichord, celesta, two violins, viola, and cello—creating in a sense two orchestras, hence the title “Le double.”
Written in 1959, the piece is reminiscent of a modern-day concerto grosso, but unlike the traditionally Baroque form, in “Le double” the smaller ensemble acts as a mirror or ghost of the larger one, creating a fascinatingly complex and richly textured musical panorama.
“I endeavored to avoid the stumbling block of the somewhat archaic form,” Dutilleux said. “The 12 musicians of the smaller orchestra considered separately do not constantly play the role of soloists; it is the mass they form that constitutes the solo element. This mass does not merely confront and dialogue with the larger formation, but at times fuses with, or superimposes itself upon the latter, leaving ample opportunity for polyrhyhthmics and polytonality.”
The Seattle Symphony dances with precision and grace through the dense textures and intertwined solos of the first movement, the delicately colored timbres and haunting lyricism of the second, and finally the convulsive rhythms and fascinating orchestration of the third. The piece ends with a deeply contrasting passage of slowly changing sonorities which spread up and down the orchestra’s pitch range before settling into a serene silence.
And after the full album’s 75 minutes of mesmerizing harmonies, remarkably complex rhythms, and brilliantly colored orchestral textures, that silence sounds beautifully crafted.