I took a chance on this set - I've always greatly admired the Seattle Symphony. And I like much of Dutilleux's music, but have never quite loved it. Well...until now. I am in constant awe of the orchestration - the orchestral colors and effects, brilliantly utilized always at the service of the music. And the music itself is so innovative, imaginative, musically enriching and interesting, I simply cannot stop listening to it. These performances are absolutely phenomenal in every conceivable way.
This orchestra has always been good. And it has always had the extraordinary advantage of having a hall with great acoustics which resulted in sensational recorded sound (oh, those Delos discs in the 80s and 90s with Gerard Schwarz!). But as good as Schwarz was, Ludovic Morlot has elevated this group to another league altogether (at least based upon listening to these glorious Dutilleux recordings), as do the acoustics in its current hall (which opened in 1998).
If I've previously been left with the impression that Maestro Morlot sounds a little too cautious on record (specifically with his Stravinsky series with this orchestra), this Dutilleux set is another matter altogether. It is just superlative. It features playing of the utmost accomplishment, refinement, effortless virtuosity and commanding dynamics. The strings in particular, have developed into a world-class group, with burnished, singing tone, unanimity of ensemble, precision of articulation, and a powerful body of sound. The magnificent solo playing from the principals in all sections, also, is beyond reproach. And there is no denying the accomplishment of Maestro Morlot in this, his crowning achievement (at least on record) with this orchestra. He certainly has a thorough understanding of this composer.
Topping it off is atmospheric, yet clear recorded sound on the symphony's own label, which captures the hall's acoustics superbly. It places the orchestra at a perfect perspective, which is layered back behind the speakers in a most realistic way, but also more open and "present" than the old Delos recordings, providing thrilling dynamic contrasts.
Amazingly, these are "live" recordings. One would never know it simply by listening, as there is no audience noise whatsoever (they must have been so enthralled they forgot all about coughing), and mercifully, there is no applause. Amazing, too, simply because of the quality of the sound and the perfection of the playing.
After acquiring this set, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the out-of-print Arte Nova set from the early 2000s (reissued on SONY's 2009 Un Siecle En France series - also out-of-print). It is fascinating to discover Hans Graf finding more sheer energy and delicate internal orchestral details in all of this music, aided by a more analytical recording. However, the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine isn't as polished as the Seattle Symphony. And the recorded sound is not as refined, sounding more matter-of-fact and less sumptuous. But it is a compelling alternative to the more colorful, atmospheric Seattle performances. I found myself admiring the compositional genius of the composer listening to Graf, and loving the music with Morlot.
Both violinists in the Violin Concerto (L'arbre des songes) are excellent. Olivier Charlier (with Graf) takes swifter tempos, and his sweetly singing tone brings a satisfyingly lyrical approach. However, Augustin Hadelich in Seattle, is very much his equal, bringing more variety of tonal colors and articulation. And Morlot's orchestral contribution is more potent and dramatic.
Best of all, however, (at least in the 2nd Symphony), is Bychkov's glorious 1994 Philips recording with the Orchestre de Paris. I admit to having never listened to this CD before now, even though it's been on my shelves for decades. And it is simply a revelation. Tempos are more moving and energetic, to great advantage. And along with the magnificent playing from the Paris orchestra, Bychkov brings a granitic weight and drama to this music, which sounds absolutely authoritative. And like Graf, Bychkov is less intoxicating than Morlot, bringing out more of the structure and forward momentum along with all the orchestral color. In the end, Bychkov gives us the best of both worlds and it is a pity he recorded only one disc of Dutilleux. It is simply addictive and the Philips recording is stunning.
Should I temper my original assessment of the Seattle Symphony's achievement after hearing the competition? No. Coming back to it again, it is still fabulous. There is no denying the Seattle Symphony is a force to be reckoned with these days. And considering the superb recorded sound their own label produces in their own hall, it simply doesn't get any better than this.