With the passing of Sir Colin Davis, Charles Dutoit stands as arguably today’s premier Berlioz conductor. If his case needed any special pleading, it was pled well in Symphony Hall when he bracketed Henri Dutillieux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement ou La Nuit étoilée with Berlioz's Resurrexit and Te Deum.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee

The 23 year-old Berlioz destroyed all the parts for his 1824 Messe solennelle in 1827. The Resurrexit, however, survived as a stand-alone piece, twice revised. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the final 1828 version, which went unpublished until 1920. Despite disowning the Messe, Berlioz mined it for later works as the discovery of a manuscript version of the complete score in Antwerp in 1992 proved. It was already known that material from the Resurrexit had been recast for Benvenuto Cellini and the Requiem’s Tuba mirum.

If you know Berlioz, it is impossible to listen to the concentrated drama of the short Resurrexit with innocent ears immune to the piece’s “name that tune” aspect. Fortunately Dutoit’s energetic, propulsive rendition didn’t allow for distraction. Contrary to its customary practice, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by Guest Chorus Conductor James Burton, did not sing from memory. That, however, did not keep them from maintaining the rapid pace set by Dutoit without compromising diction or articulation.

Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement, receiving its BSO première, was like a shot of Calvados in the middle of a rich meal: it not only cleansed the palate, it stimulated the appetite. In the spirit of Milton’s oxymoronic “darkness visible”, Dutilleux strives to make a painting audible, Van Gogh’s 1889 Nocturne The Starry Night with its expressionistic arabesques of clouds and constellations whirling in the night sky above a sleeping village. Like Berlioz before him, Dutilleux always pays particular attention to the instruments he assigns to specific passages, even to the point of giving instructions on how they should be played. Sound for its own sake provides the basis for the range of colors necessary to express musically what Van Gogh represents pictorially. To that end, Dutilleux calls for a special orchestra of quadruple woodwinds including a crucial role for the oboe d’amore, triple brass, an augmented and diverse array of percussion, cellos, double basses, celesta and harp, but without any violins and violas whatsoever. He asks for the cellos to be seated in front of the conductor, embracing the podium in an arc, with the double basses to the conductor’s right; percussion, woodwinds, and brass spread out behind the strings from left to right. Dutilleux intended the lack of violins and violas to create a sense of space, a void illustrated by the contrast between the remaining low strings and the “luminous sonorities of the woodwinds and brass”.

The first movement is marked Nébeleuse understood as a noun meaning “galaxy”. There is nothing nebulous or hazy about the galaxies of harmony and repeated, revolving rhythms which pass before the ear’s eye, each one limned by its own particular grouping of instruments. In 1991 Dutilleux added a brief interlude for the 12 cellos which deepens the color of the night, adding a cosmic, mystical dimension to the sound painting which spills over to the second and final movement, Constellations. Here Dutilleux charts the progress of the stars across the heavens in the form of shifting harmonies and timbres sprinkled with sparkling runs of notes from the celesta. Thanks to a pictorial attention to detail and color on the part of both conductor and orchestra, not only the painting but the brushstrokes themselves were brought to audible life.

Berlioz conceived the Te Deum as part of a larger piece meant to celebrate the military glory of the First Republic at the dawn of the Second. As happened too often throughout his career, the piece languished, not receiving its first performance until 1855 when the Church of Saint-Eustache inaugurated its new grand organ. Two instrumental movements of an overtly martial nature were cut and have been omitted ever since. Five of its remaining six movements are marked Hymne or Prière; the sixth is marked both. The Hymnes capture the mysterium tremendum in the majestic grandeur of their scoring, while the Prières are cast in more gentle and contemplative tones, nowhere more so than in the rapt supplication of Te ergo quaesumus, where Paul Groves’ clear diction and adept use of mezza voce cast a sheen of awe and wonder over his humble plea. Sounding like Cecil B DeMille’s publicist, Berlioz called the closing Judex crederis his “most grandiose creation”, “colossal, Babylonian”, and “Ninevite” in scope. The combined forces of orchestra and chorus seemed to take him at his word as they unleashed a torrent of sound building from an initially ponderous, dirge-like pulse to a joyous paean capped by an exultant fanfare.