The music of Henri Dutilleux offers a unique contrast to much of modern French composition. Not only does it rarely, if ever, offer any hints of nationalistic bent, but even its ties to modern compositional schools can be difficult, at best, to pin down. Dutilleux seems to revel in distilling the past century of classical music into his own idiosyncratic style.
D'ombre et de silence is a rather generous collection of his piano compositions. Robert Levin serves as host and performer for the program (along with Ya-Fei Chuang during the "Figures de resonances" for two pianos), and brings a wealth of personal insight to the works. Levin met Dutilleux in the late 1970s via the pre-eminent French music instructor Nadia Boulanger. Since that time they have remained both friends and colleagues, and Levin brings that innate knowledge of the composer's music to bear in these highly nuanced performances.
After the brief introductory piece "Petit air a dormir debout", the disc opens into the primary work of the first half, Dutilleux's "Sonate." Not only is it one of the composer's most popular works, but it establishes a wonderful overview for much of the rest of the music that follows. Partly because in some respects it contains elements of all the styles that follow. Dutilleux's influences and direction can be difficult to pin down, except to simply observe that they are the culmination of many trends that both preceded and grew with him. In the "Sonate" you can catch glimpses of everything from Prokofiev to the more current piano works of John Corigliano, while at the same time never landing squarely on any of their styles. The work fairly sparkles with hints of recognition while developing something both refreshingly familiar and decidedly unique. And far from being schizophrenic, these various bits are expertly and meticulously woven into their own cohesive sound world.
The "Sonate" feels the most fully realised of the works on the disc, as most of the other works are shorter and wear their influences a bit more on their sleeve. The two movements from "Au gre des ondes" offer more than a slight nod in Satie's direction, while "Blackbird" feels almost alive, and that it might have actually been taken from transcriptions of real blackbird songs.