Top 5 Contemporary Piano Sonatas: #4

#4: Dutilleux – Piano Sonata (1948)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) deserves more recognition. He was a consummate craftsman, and, in the tradition of Brahms or Dukas, he wrote a lot more than he published, serving as his own tough critic. But the modest output available to us is full of extremely high-quality music.  His orchestral works are full of sensuous, mysterious soundscapes, and the cello concerto Tout un monde lointain… is a significant contribution to the genre. Among his several pieces for piano, the 1948 sonata stands as both perhaps the greatest French piano sonata ever (sorry Alkan, Boulez, and Dukas) and also the turning point in his stylistic development. He himself viewed it as his true Opus 1. It’s a fascinating synthesis of Bartok, Prokofiev, and French influences, with a fluid harmonic language that’s hard to summarize. It can be lush, bleak, kaleidoscopic, or jazzy, sometimes all in the same movement. All three movements have key signatures and definitive tonal endings, but the music ventures very far from those confines.

The first movement opens with a melody that’s somehow busy and lazy at the same time, like wandering past shops on a late afternoon. The tune is really clear and direct, with some cool subversions of the beat and muddled harmonies that make you lean forward to listen more attentively. Some more active material interjects and then takes over, silencing the tune seemingly too soon. The active stuff doesn’t seem to fit with the opening tune at all, but in my analysis it’s still part of the whole first-subject group, because after a return of the main theme there’s a sense of a closure and the beginning of totally new mood. The harmonies in this section just ooze with modest French coolness and a touch of jazz. This builds into a surprisingly intense assault of crunchy, menacing chords that would feel at home in a Prokofiev sonata. Then Dutilleux whisks us back to the opening theme, creating new variants that show more of a connection with the active material. The second subject is recapitulated, accelerating into a coda, and the movement ends quietly, modestly, with a wink.

The title “Lied” at the top of the second movement would suggest a focus on a tune, and that’s what Dutilleux gives us here, though it’s harmonized with piquant chords and wanders into unexpected leaps. The second half of the melody is the part that really sticks in my ear, with more of a stepwise motion. It’s the kind of monolithic earworm that you’d expect in a Messiaen piece. The ambiguous mood of this movement is fun to live in for a little while, and then Dutilleux takes off on another flight of fancy. Undulating octatonic figures swirl around into a haze until they double in speed and crescendo to hair-raising effect. Then we get dropped back to the opening material. It’s almost as if Dutilleux likes to transport us to these wild colorful worlds, then yank us out of them so they feel like dreams that never happened. Just one of the awesome things he does as a composer.

The third movement is a grand Chorale and Variations, announcing its theme in huge accented chords, notated across four staves. The chains of descending perfect fourths in the theme, especially in this setting, are strongly reminiscent of bells tolling. The octatonic harmonies and other sonorities remind me of Messiaen. Var. I plays with some staccato shenanigans in the bass and some lighter colors in the middle range. Var. II is a tour de force of near-perpetual motion and lightning-quick runs. The harmony is so cohesive, even at this tempo, that this variation is just wonderful to behold. Var. III settles down into a more plush, delicate version of the theme, with quiet resonances climbing from the depths of the piano to the stratosphere. Var. IV, the last, launches into action with some flurries of activity that sound straight out of Prokofiev or Shostakovich, rushing into a final climactic statement of the theme in the original giant chords, ending in glorious F-sharp major.

On thing I forgot to mention: the first movement is in the key of A major/F-sharp minor, so the third movement’s ending in F-sharp major forms the completion of a journey of progressive tonality. Despite the extreme chromaticism of the music, Dutilleux must have still had key centers in mind. Furthermore, the second movement is in D-flat, which would make it enharmonically the dominant of F-sharp – the most traditional key choice for a second movement. This is all kind of amazing considering the complexity and freedom of the harmonic language.

I really, really like this piece. The quieter moods draw you in with lush harmony, and the more energetic sections are full of scintillating virtuosity. After two listens, all the musical logic was absolutely clear. It’s a journey worth taking, and you might notice those tunes from I and II floating around in your head for a few days.

Where to find it:

HL50561699 Durand edition


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