For my Introduction to Music Criticism course:
Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century French poet, identified two halves to art in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life:” “the eternal and the immutable,” and modernity, meaning “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.” This description certainly applies to the contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux, who took direct inspiration from Baudelaire. His music is both transcendent and fleeting, with roots in both the past of Debussy, and the kaleidoscopic present. Tout un monde lointain…, Dutilleux’s work for cello and orchestra, takes both its title, which translates to “A whole distant world…,” and prefatory quotations for each movement from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, a scandal-inducing book of poetry published in 1857.
In a new recording released on Deutsche Grammophon in January of this year, cellist Anssi Karttunen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the head travel to that alien world, guiding the listener through an otherworldly landscape shrouded in a colorful haze.
Karttunen is a champion of new music, having premiered works written for him by fellow Finns Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and his conductor on this disc, Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as Tan Dun and other significant contemporary composers. Tout un monde lointain… was originally written in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich, the giant of the cello, and as such probes the limits of virtuosity. But Karttunen admirably steps out of Rostropovich’s long shadow with an individual performance. His playing is generally less oracular than Rostropovich’s, with lower contrast and a less transcendent tone, but is equally committed. One could not hope for a much better pairing than Karttunen and Salonen, who is similarly dedicated to new pieces, for a recording of Dutilleux.
Like its namesake poetry, Tout un monde lointain… is imagistic and mystical. In the first movement, “Énigme,” the cello becomes a magician alternating between muttered intonations and ecstatic outbursts while neon smoke and sweet odors waft from the orchestra. Karttunen commits fully to his role of prophet, allowing passion to carry him through crazed phrases that traverse the full range of his instrument.
The second and fourth movements, “Regard” and “Miroirs,” prove that Karttunen also possesses lyricism and a tone that is paradoxically sharp-edged and delicate. Over oozing orchestral chords in “Regard” and mysterious percussion and harp chimes in “Miroirs,” the cello exhales long-lined plaints. Salonen resists the urge for clarity and allows the winds and strings to bleed into each other, surrounding the cello in an unearthly fog.
The quotation preceding the third movement, “Houles,” conjures “a sea of ebony,” and Dutilleux writes erratic phrases that whirl violently upon that sea. Karttunen attacks his line with reckless abandon, easily navigating the craggy passagework. This agitation returns in the primal last movement, deceptively titled “Hymne.”
Tout un monde lointain… is one example of what Baudelaire’s ideal art could sound like in music. Transient harmonies, visceral passion, and fugitive melodic fragments individually depict modernity, but under the sure hands of Karttunen and Salonen coalesce to strive towards eternity. They may not come as close as Rostropovich, but they at least show us a new, distant world.