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Salonen Finds The Dramatic In Dutilleux

Esa-Pekka Salonen continues his string of superb 20th and 21st century recordings for Deutsche Grammophon with the world premiere of Henri Dutilleux’s “Correspondances,” a series of poems and letters by the 97-year-old composer, one of three works on the new CD. The title, though, actually comes from the Baudelaire work that looks for correspondences between words and music.

The “Fleurs du Mal” bad boy isn’t part of this mix, which has two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, one by Prithwindra Mukherjee, and a letter each from Vincent van Gogh and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Except for the Solzhenitsyn letter, there’s a sense of mystery to the verbal elements, and even there he ends with “we Russians are fated to a common doom, and one can only hope that the Lord will not punish us to the end.” Mukherjee talks of oblivion, van Gogh “the powers of darkness” and Rilke “perverted silence” so good-time Charlie Baudelaire might not have been out of place after all.

There’s a real dramatic thrust to both the compositions and the conducting as well as a kinship between Salonen and Dutilleux for shimmering soundscapes.

The music, performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, speaks more to sadness, though, than damnation or evil. Still, as with the 2012 CDs of his work and Shostakovich’s, there’s a real dramatic thrust to both the compositions and the conducting. And a kinship between Salonen and Dutilleux for shimmering soundscapes that show a common debt to Debussy. Barbara Hannigan is the excellent soprano soloist — Dutillleux wanted Salonen and Hannigan to record the piece after hearing them perform it. To which the folks who premiered it, Simon Rattle and Dawn Upshaw, might have asked, “What are we, tuna fish?”

One other correspondence, or connection, is between Dutilleux and the late, great Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom he wrote the cello piece, “Tout un Monde Lointain …,” which is here played by Anssi Karttunen. Rostropovich is more soulful in individual passages and is more closely recorded, but Karttunen has a better sense of the piece overall.

The CD ends with “The Shadows of Time,” premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It quotes Anne Frank, “Why us? Why the star?” beautifully sung by the boy soloists from the maîtrise de Radio France. There’s obviously a humanist element to Dutilleux’s work, though none of it is programmatic.

One other thing about these last three Salonen recordings. I love the fact that DG has gotten away from its cult of personality obsessiveness with artist photographs and gotten back to its LP practice of looking for photographs and paintings that, well, correspond to the music. Here it’s a photograph of a monstrously large apartment building. Through the windows we can imagine all kinds of Edward Hopper melancholia. It’s a fitting tribute to the music, and let’s hope that DG does more of it.

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