Unloved French composer still seduces

January 26, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is one of the greatest living composers, but he has never enjoyed anything like the popularity (or renown) achieved by a few other French composers, notably Olivier Messaien and Pierre Boulez.

(It was only about three years ago that his Violin Concerto, even when championed by so redoubtable a persuader as Isaac Stern, left Baltimore Symphony audiences cold.)

This is a a strange thing, because Dutilleux has all the characteristics one associates with French music at its best: exquisite craftsmanship, formal mastery and expressive warmth.

One suspects that like some of the other genuine masters of the 20th century -- Roussel or Martinu come to mind -- his appeal may remain confined to connoisseurs.

The New World String Quartet, which performed last night in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has always championed interesting 20th century pieces that are a little off the beaten path and Dutilleux's mid-1970s quartet, "Ainsi la nuit," is no exception. (They have recorded the piece for the Pickwick label.)

Like his spiritual and musical forbears, Debussy and Ravel, the composer here is concerned with the concept of the night rather than with a nocturnal program.

The seven movements of the work -- played without a break except for a midway pause -- are played continuously.

As it does in much of his other music, the ideas in the piece sneak upon one gradually -- all the while seducing the listener with their ravishing effects -- reaching powerful and sonorous conclusions at the end of each of the quartet's halves.

The New World players -- violinists Curtis Macomber and Vahn Armstrong, violist Jeffrey Irvine and cellist Ross Harbaugh -- made the most of the piece's aura of mystery and its scurrying whispers.

The rest of the attractive program -- Haydn's Quartet in G Major (Opus 54, No. 1) and Ravel's Quartet in F -- was also performed persuasively.

The lively finale of the Haydn was particularly beautiful, with the players handling its unexpected pauses and sudden juxtapositions in timbre and dynamics in a playful way that brought a smile to the face of most of the listeners.

The Ravel quartet -- which was performed with a winning combination of vitality, tonal delicacy and wit -- was just as good.

This was not one of those concerts to leave at the end of the printed program.

For the New World rewarded those who remained with a performance of a tango by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

The effects of this piece -- with its scraping on the strings and on the wood of the instruments -- were as dazzling as those achieved by Ravel in the pizzacato scherzo of his quartet.

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