Henry Dutilleux's Total Immersion at the Barbican was almost too much to take in - review

The BBC Symphony Orchestra
The BBC Symphony Orchestra Credit: BBC

Every year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra does something only it has the resources and inclination to do: offer us a day-long immersion in the music of a contemporary composer. Last March we were immersed in the music of Pierre Boulez, the high-priest of musical modernism, who died only five days later. Yesterday it was the music of Henri Dutilleux, who for 60 years until his death in 2013 was Boulez’s great rival for the title of “greatest living French composer”.

Henri Dutilleux

Boulez snubbed Dutilleux for the whole of those 60 years, and the two concerts we heard explained why. Dutilleux was just too close for comfort, and in many ways his music is more approachable. It has a similar orchestral sheen and glitter, the surface flecked with darting, sinuously ornamented melodic lines. But the harmony is much more sumptuous and easy on the ear. And it connotes a richer world than Boulez’s, with echoes of Berg and Bartók and Debussy.

In the afternoon chamber music concert played by students of the Guildhall school we heard other echoes too. The Sonatine for flute and piano of 1943 had a dash of French neo-classicism, and the late piece Les Citations evoked Britten’s Peter Grimes and Renaissance French music. But these chamber works didn’t show Dutilleux’s talent at its height, and the technically able but somewhat tentative performances didn’t help. The one exception was the string quartet Ainsi la Nuit, Dutilleux’s string quartet which is one of the masterworks of the medium from the past 50 years. The Barbican String Quartet gave a blazing and unusually forthright performance, which brought out the pouncing energy lurking just under the music’s often regretful, dreamy surface.

Cellist Alban Gerhardt

Dutilleux’s music needs forthright performance if it’s not to sound precious, a lesson cellist Alban Gerhardt has clearly learned. His performance of Dutilleux’s cello concerto Tout un Monde Lointain had a noble expansiveness free of the febrile fidgety quality that can sometimes creep into Dutilleux’s fluttering gestures. That quality was evident elsewhere in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert, especially in The Shadows of Time, with its three boy trebles posing the bewildered, sad question posed by Anne Frank in her wartime diary: “Why us? Why the star?”

However, the sheer gorgeousness of Dutilleux’s music did start to weigh heavy on the ear. Some composers respond well to a Total Immersion; Dutilleux’s music is best taken in small sips.

Hear the chamber concert on BBC Radio 3 on May 20 at 2.00pm, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert on May 2 at 7.30pm. Hear both for 30 days after the broadcast via the Radio 3 website: