Nash Ensemble/Tortelier, Wigmore Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Since the death of Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux has been widely regarded as the Grand Old Man of contemporary French music, and this Wigmore Hall celebration culminated in the presentation of the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal to the still-active 92-year-old composer.

The programme, by an augmented Nash Ensemble, interspersed three Dutilleux items with music by three of the composers who have meant most to him. The opener was Stravinsky's crisp, acidulated Concerto in D for string orchestra (1946), in a reading under Jan Pascal Tortelier so intent that one heard the collective intake of breath as the players attacked the next scrunchy phrase.

Dutilleux's own curious Diptyque – Les Citations (1985/91) followed, its first movement a birthday tribute to Peter Pears and quoting Britten's Peter Grimes, its second a memorial to the French organist and composer Jehan Alain – though one wondered whether even Dutilleux's refined ear always quite managed to integrate its odd line-up of oboe, harpsichord, double bass and percussion.

No such question about his string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1973-76), a sequence of tiny movements encompassing some of the most exquisitely sensitised flights of nuance and texture. Marianne Thorsen led her three Nash colleagues in a marvellously volatile account, responding to the work's moments of underlying violence. She returned with cellist Paul Watkins to give as passionate a reading of Ravel's extended Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22).

After a moment of calm, as Philippa Davies delivered a perfectly formed account of Debussy's Syrinx (1913) for solo flute, the stage refilled for Dutilleux's Mystère de l'instant (1989) in its revised form for 18 strings, cimbalom and percussion. The varying densities of the textures, the gestural fluctuations of vehemence and calm seemed to come more frequently and unpredictably than in the string quartet – the full, fiercely intense sonority of vibrant strings, clangorous cimbalom and reverberant percussion almost overwhelming in the modest spaces of the Wigmore Hall. The audience response was warm and prolonged.