A world premiere by Henri Dutilleux and a rare South Bank appearance by Anne-Sophie Mutter (pictured) made sure that the London Philharmonic's principal conductor Kurt Masur, celebrating here his 75th birthday, was well upstaged by his own programme. Doubtless that's the way he would have wanted it: this was also his return from illness, and his brisk arrival and exit from the platform left no time for partying or speeches. It also meant that the full house put the Dutilleux piece in an unusually charged atmosphere for a premiere.
Quite right too; there have only ever been about 20 Dutilleux premieres and they are always major international events on the classical scene. That's partly because he has long seemed, even more than the late Olivier Messiaen, to be the last great embodiment of a composing tradition that began with Debussy and Ravel. But it's also a consequence of his slow, self-critical way of working, since the quality of each piece can be guaranteed and, with the possible exception of Paul Dukas, there is no other composer in the last century or so that you can say this about.
What is also guaranteed is that each piece is different from its predecessors. He has written for string soloists and orchestra before, at concerto length. "Sur le mème accord", which he calls a Nocturne for violin and orchestra, is around 10 minutes, characteristically full of darting, light-and-shade phrases that take wing briefly and transform themselves into something else even as you listen. Quiet, scintillating orchestration is something he has made his own.
The title refers to music made "on one chord". It suggests the music will be modal and static, or else that Dutilleux has taken like Messiaen to inventing his own scales for the harmony they provide. But there's much more to it. The chord comes and goes, spins off more chords, varied melodic ideas, ever new relationships. It's the unifying idea that you can sense, though such is the artistry that you'd be hard put to identify it if he hadn't mentioned it. Had the composer been Arnold Schoenberg he would have called it a composing system to ensure 50 years of national dominance in music, but that isn't Dutilleux's way. It's a device to hold one piece together, and the next one will need a new stimulus.
At all events, the music was played with the subtlety and dash it deserved. So fleeting is it that the performers could have got away with playing it a second time to its captive audience, but the rest of Mutter's time was given instead to the two Romances by Beethoven. Beautifully played, and a Masur birthday ought to have its Beethoven, but these pieces are hardly on the same plane, even though Mutter's way with the first, erupting fiercely out of its serenity near the end, put it temporarily in a new dimension.
Debussy and Ravel themselves supplied the second half. The former's La Mer continued the style that the orchestra had found for Dutilleux: the tonal weight kept down, the lines vivid and unemphatic apart from a few eccentric woodwind balances. Eccentric balances are the essence of Ravel's La Valse, as the Viennese waltz of the title emerges hesitantly from a writhing mass of dark sound, flowers briefly and then disintegrates back into organised chaos. This final break-up was done here with ruthless cumulative power, rushing into the darkness. It was a scary way to celebrate a birthday and Masur should choose something else for his next party, in New York.Reuse content