François Le Roux & Olivier Godin – Henri Dutilleux birthday concert

François Le Roux (baritone, above), Olivier Godin (piano, below)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
4 mélodies (Féerie au clair de lune, Pour une amie perdue, Chanson au bord de la mer, Fantasio)
Au gré des ondes: Prélude en berceuse
3 mélodies inédites (L’Ange pleurer, Vers de Ronsard, La Faute en est à toi)
Improvisation
Regards sur l’infini
Hommage à Bach
Chanson de la déportée
3 sonnets de Jean Cassou (Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us), La geôle, Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés
J’ai rêvé
Petit air à dormir debout
San Francisco Night

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 22 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

This was a remarkable hour of music; the only regret being that not more people were present at the Wigmore Hall to see it. In a relatively rare Tuesday lunchtime concert at the venue, François Le Roux and Olivier Godin treated us to an hour-long celebration of the birthday of Henri Dutilleux, one of France’s finest 20th century composers – which is certainly saying something!

Dutilleux (below), who died as recently as 2013, left a small but perfectly formed musical canon, consisting mostly of works for the orchestra or the piano. His songs are little known and for good reason, as the composer himself did not think greatly of them, preferring to suppress their performance and recording. There are however enough to form more than an hour of music.

Only the baritone François Le Roux performs them regularly, and with pianist Olivier Godin he has recorded them all on a single disc. From that disc came much of the music performed here; songs written in the 1940s when the composer was establishing his mature voice.

Dutilleux was very hard on himself, it has to be said – and to explain why we had the peerless programme notes of Roger Nichols to guide us. They told us of Charles Panzera, a distinguished baritone who became the muse of the first eight songs in the recital, all written for performance on French radio.

The first of the 4 mélodies was Féerie au clair de lune (Moonlight of Fairies), which had bluesy undertones to its sparkling piano part, brilliantly played – and a vividly pictorial response to the words which Le Roux had no trouble in communicating. This was a feature of the recital, the baritone’s open performance style, extending through a simple but moving Pour une amie perdue (For a Lost Lady-Love), with its straightforward stepwise progressions, and then a slow, meandering Chanson au bord de la mer (Song by the Sea). The direct responses contained flashes of humour in the entertaining Fantasio, a setting of André Bellessort with the opening line (translated), ‘Death caught you costumed for the fancy ball’.

The concert was helpfully bookmarked with some of Dutilleux’s solo piano output, about which he was once again dismissive – but which once again far exceeded his evaluations in my opinion! The Prélude en berceuse was an attractive pairing with an easy charm and hints of Ravel. A later Improvisation enjoyed its freedom, while Hommage à Bach was clarity personified, an ideal bit of pastiche writing.

By then Le Roux had given us the Borsent setting L’Ange pleurer (The Weeping Angel), then a very cheeky Vers de Ronsard to make even the most liberally minded audience members blush a little! The same poet’s Le Faute en est à toi (Love, blame yourself) was perfectly clear but also given an extra sense of yearning by a slight husk to the singer’s voice.

1941 was a good year of songwriting for Dutilleux – we heard Chanson de le deportee (Song of the departed woman), a downhearted and rather powerful lament. Then we moved to four settings of Jean Cassou, the startling violence within Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us) making a strong impact, together with a cold coda. After that, the descriptive powers at work in La geôle were equally startling, notably for the full range of the piano expertly used by Godin. Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés (Only torn tree-trunks) was also remarkable, a wild-eyed and rather stark setting, before J’ai rêvé (I dreamed), which inevitably inhabited a much more languid world.

Dutilleux was never a composer for unnecessary or lengthy discourse – as the short piano piece Petit air à dormer debout proved. The final song, too, San Francisco Night – with words by Paul Gilson – took much longer for Le Roux to explain than it did to sing. His storytelling was rather wonderful though, as was the song – a beautifully judged and very poignant tribute to Francis Poulenc, and part of a collection commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty. Dutilleux’s final song, it effectively marked the end of the French mélodie begun by Berlioz – but what a lovely, bittersweet way to finish.

Further listening

Unfortunately François Le Roux and Olivier Godin’s disc of Dutilleux’s songs is not available on any streaming services currently. However you can listen to a wonderful disc of Anne Queffélec playing the composer’s piano works on Spotify here: