Dutilleux was my "composer discovery" of the year in 2020. I knew him primarily from his flute music. As a college flutist, I played all of it - attracted by its originality and difficulty. Plus his writing for the piano is equally challenging and interesting. (I also played the piano parts for many fellow flutists.) Last year, I discovered his orchestral music - the 2 symphonies, all those magnificent, descriptive, incredibly orchestrated tone poems, and his string quartet. I was enthralled with (and reviewed) the terrific 3-disc set of orchestral music played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, recorded live on their own label. And I was hooked.
Exploring further, I also discovered the ballet, Le Loup (The Wolf), on a wonderful 2015 BIS SACD, conducted by Pascal Rophe. I was intrigued by it because it's much more traditional. It sounds more like Roussel than Dutilleux! And the orchestration is more traditional as well. Dutilleux hadn't yet expanded his palette into new territory, with its many new and fascinating orchestral effects and colors, that he later came to master.
So when John Wilson took up this composer with his fabulous Sinfonia of London, I obtained it immediately. And Chandos delivers another stunning SACD. My only disappointment with it is that, unlike most Chandos releases which typically offer 70-80 minutes of music, this one has just 56. It's so good, I want more! Surely they could have recorded just one more piece by this incredible composer.
The ballet in Wilson's hands is more extrovert, lively and dynamic than the colorfully descriptive one on BIS. This is partly due to the recording perspective. BIS is slightly softer, and is more delectably atmospheric. And it positively glows with orchestral color. Chandos is more up-front - bold and energetic.
But the differences are mainly due to the no-nonsense approach from Wilson. Wilson has the ability to lead a body of musicians from one arrival point (sometimes it's a climactic point) to another, without becoming wayward or lingering in between. His understanding of the overall scope of a piece is the key. And the orchestra takes it from there. But this straightforward, nuts-n-bolts direction leans toward the dramatically symphonic, optimizing impact. Listening again to Rophe, his is instantly more obviously "French" - more colorful, characterful, more balletic. (And surely more "authentic".) He also brings out more delicate inner detail. Overall he tells a more interesting story. Both readings are valid and enjoyable, and both orchestras play the score magnificently. Everywhere there is a freshness and spontaneity which is sorely missing on many orchestral recordings. Which one do I ultimately prefer? Definitely Rophe, although I wouldn't want to be without either.
3 soloistic works follow - played here not in their original scoring with piano, but with the orchestra - in new orchestrations by Kenneth Hesketh. Beginning with the Flute Sonatine, with which I am very familiar, I was not surprised I hear it as inferior to the original. It's a bit too Impressionistic in the orchestration. I miss the dynamic interjections and percussive articulation of the piano. And the communicative interplay between the two players is diminished with the orchestration. The piece is so masterfully written for flute and piano, I think it is even more colorful as originally conceived. This version isn't bad by any means. It's just...different. No complaints, though, with Adam Walker's playing of it. He is fabulous - as always. It's good to see him appear on yet another Chandos release (his 3rd so far).
The Oboe Sonate is better. Here, the extra color, texture and ambience created by the orchestra is completely beneficial. It works superbly. And it is played beautifully by Juliana Koch, principal oboist of the London Symphony Orchestra.
I am not at all familiar with the Sarabande & Cortege for bassoon, so cannot comment on the success of the orchestration. I can only observe it sounds excellent - if not really at all like Dutilleux. Chandos spotlights the bassoon to a slightly larger than life presence, and what an impact the piece makes as a result! It is expertly played by Jonathan Davies, principal bassoon of the London Philharmonic.
Oddly, the informative, expansive booklet makes no mention of the soloists. Surely a major oversight. The information I've provided above is the result of Google searches. One wonders if any, or all, of these three also assume principal positions with this Sinfonia of London orchestra for these recording sessions. We know this orchestra is comprised of principal players from throughout the greater London area, so it is a distinct possibility. But Chandos doesn't tell us. They do spend a lot of time on Kenneth Hesketh and his transcriptions. I lost count how many times his name is mentioned. There is also a 3-page transcript of an interview with him. I don't mean to belittle his contribution to this disc, but to highlight him so excessively at the expense of the 3 soloists just seems wrong.
All in all, this is a delightful concert. Anyone hesitant of Dutilluex should give it a try. Set those pre-conceived notions aside and enjoy an afternoon of French orchestral music, which is rather more Impressionistic than it is overtly "modern". It's not Ravel or Debussy, but it is reminiscent of Roussel and early Ibert.