“Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque defunct, vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique,” (“A whole distant world, absent, barely alive, dwells in your depths, oh scented forest.”)
Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned this cello concerto. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire inspired it, albeit loosely. Pierre Boulez disdained its composer, Henri Dutilleux, and his work, which might be why Henri Dutilleux isn’t as famous as Pierre Boulez, who played such a big part in the contemporary classical music scene in postwar France.
The concerto’s full title is “Tout un monde lointain… (‘A Whole Distant World…’) for Cello and Orchestra.” I heard it for the first time recently, performed by the San Francisco Symphony with cellist Gautier Capuçon. It begins with an ever-so-soft, shimmery sound, a stiff metal brush against a drum head that commences the first movement. Dutilleux claimed that at the night of the concerto’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence, right as the concert began, in that instant, “a new breeze began gently to rustle the leaves of the plane tree, like the sound of waves and very similar to what I had been searching for when I wrote the score.” Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen. And thus, under that magic spell, the cello begins, offering its contemplative reply.
Listening, I felt as if I’d been transported inside a movie. One of those older ones, the kind you saw first as a kid, and it utterly engrossed you, encapsulated you, and of course it had a great soundtrack; it was all about the soundtrack, and was likely a mystery, a black and white one, a thoughtful movie, something sort of Twilight Zone-ish.
Gautier Capuçon, as the soloist, was sublime. This is the second time I’ve seen him perform and his efforts never fail to render me starry-eyed with admiration and infatuation. He had a thoughtful, intelligent way of playing the concerto, head angled in, as if he were finding the notes that were already there, deep within the cello. He wasn’t making music so much as releasing it into the air. I can’t decide if his stellar playing is in part due to his charismatic good looks and demeanor or that the two simply go hand in hand with him. I first saw him perform the Schumann Cello Concerto a few years back and, like this night, was completely wowed by him and his performance. My verdict: he is both sublimely talented and pleasing to watch perform.
Dutilleux, a mid-to-late 20th century composer, is not a serialist, a twelve-tone-ist, a modernist, a sentimentalist. He shuns isms and set styles and composes from his own well of individualism and carefully crafted creativity. His career has been one of “quality not quantity” and has won him many accolades and commissions from world-class musicians and ensembles, although he’s certainly not a household name, even within the classical music world. His music is striking. Moody, evocative, conjuring up colors and complex feelings and moods that you’re not sure how to define. And yet, lest we all get too sentimental, in alternating movements of “Tout un monde lointain…” the cello gets feisty, the music harsher, more dissonant. The brass lets out a blast and there’s all sorts of drama going on. Like cockroaches crawling around in the night and you turn on the light in a room and they all scatter in a panic.
But just when the third movement had me convinced on Saturday night’s performance that I didn’t like the concerto, the fourth movement brought the strumming of a harp and a return of the dreaminess, albeit with an edge to it—an uneasiness, a mystery, but the kind that draws you in, captivates you. Like seeing a blood-red rose poking out of a snow-covered yard on an overcast winter twilight, and you don’t have shoes on, so you don’t go to check it out closer, you just marvel at the sight. It’s cold and you’re alone, but there’s that compelling, mysterious sight.
The concerto’s final movement brings the listener back to agitation, lively discord, melodic but not, with the cello’s final notes just sort of trailing off, as ambiguous an ending as they come. I left the concert hall an hour later, slightly discomfited, not sure exactly what I remembered, or would remember. Perhaps just the memory of Gautier Capuçon’s artistry, those slower, pensive moments where he was bent over his cello, finding those notes, releasing them into the air for the spellbound audience to catch.
© 2011 Terez Rose
PS: Here’s a wonderful audio recording of Rostropovich performing the concerto:
More entries: March 2011
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