Only Sir Simon Rattle could deliver a sell-out concert dominated by two major works from the much admired but little performed, Henri Dutilleux. The addition of two Ravel favourites helped, but it was encouraging to see how much London audiences will trust Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra to lead them into unfamiliar territory.

Julia Bullock © Christian Steiner
Julia Bullock
© Christian Steiner
Certainly the LSO has never sounded so alert and unified, which was demonstrated exquisitely in their performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin that opened the concert. The Prelude was notable for being daringly fast, especially hazardous for the principal oboist, Olivier Stankiewicz, who played his socks off in the very tricky and unidiomatic writing from the outset. The work could almost be described as an oboe concerto, but there were also wonderful contributions from the whole woodwind sections. In a work seemly frozen by the horrors of war into charming artificiality, it is only in the Menuet that there are washes of emotion welling up beneath the surface – movingly realised here.

From the perfect artificiality of Ravel it is hardly that much of a jump to the sound world of Henri Dutilleux. His 1985 violin concerto L’arbre des songes, owes a massive amount to Ravel and Debussy in its orchestration while occupying a harmonic world which sits between tonality and atonality in an individual way. Echoes of Messiaen were also in evidence in the first section, but mostly the Dutilleux follows his own path.

And this can be a bewildering path, even with the excellent Leonidas Kavakos guiding us through with the help of an impassioned LSO. The problem is that there is so much alluring detail in the orchestration that it can be hard to concentrate on the emotional structure of the work. Obviously emotions are flying around throughout the piece, but it remains very hard to understand what they add up to. This could be a formal problem, in which the composer resisted statements of obvious thematic material in favour of development of material that hasn’t lodged in the listener’s brain.

A difficult concerto for the expectant audience to warm to, assuming it would have been new to most. However, the second Dutilleux piece on the programme, Métaboles from 1964, was easier to grasp and greatly enhanced its appeal by sporting a rousing ending. In five characterful movements, played without a break, the lush orchestral textures were even more Ravel-like here and both the LSO and Rattle seemed more relaxed and purposeful than in L’arbre des songes. Métaboles should be programmed more often.

Before this was perhaps the most memorable performance in the concert. The Four Hindu Poems from 1913 by the virtually unknown, and ripe for rediscovery, Maurice Delage, were performed by a small ensemble and the thrilling young American soprano Julia Bullock. Her stage presence, vocal production and characterisation seemed ideal for these subtle exotic creations, again unfairly neglected.

No such neglect when it comes to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé ballet who’s Suite no. 2 rounded off the evening. This was a sumptuous affair, with all departments of the orchestra excelling and Rattle seeming to draw out something even more extraordinary from each player. The climatic chord of the first Daybreak section resonated even in the dead acoustic of the Barbican and sounded like pure Dutilleux. 

****1