Unimaginative Dutilleux lacks atmosphere and allure

Unimaginative Dutilleux lacks atmosphere and allure
I had high hopes for this release. I love these 3 masterpieces from Dutilleux‘s first creative period, and to have them all on one CD (over 78 minutes of music) is very enticing. They are ingeniously scored with countless orchestral effects (especially in the strings), imaginatively exploiting all the color and atmosphere available from every section of the orchestra. And the effect can be mesmerizing.
But not in Gimeno’s hands. In general, he eschews atmosphere and color in favor of emboldened details and calculated perfection. He dissects the score, bringing every detail forward for no apparent musical reason. This approach renders the First Symphony pedestrian and uninteresting. Even the molto vivace Scherzo sounds ponderous and earthbound.
Metaboles is undermined by a serious lack of atmosphere. The orchestra sounds lackluster and dynamics are restricted. Details are clearly audible, but they’re just details without context. There is no mystery or intrigue or allure. Instead of hearing something which captures the attention, making one wonder, “what was that?”, or “how did they make that sound?”, we hear beating percussion, staccato flutes and piccolos, and col legno and harmonics in the strings – which are merely soundeffects. It doesn’t gel into a musical whole or create an otherworldly soundscape. It’s just…there. Gimeno tells us what he wants us to hear, rather than inviting the listener to experience it for themselves.
To be fair, the recording does him no favors. The orchestra is clear and immediate, but lacks dimensionality – spread across the stage along a flat plane rather than layered back in expansive, gradated rows. The hall acoustic is minimalized, reducing blend, atmosphere and breadth.
The cello concerto (Tout un Monde Lointain) comes off best. Soloist Jean-Guihen Queyras displays all the color, atmosphere and dynamic range Gimeno’s orchestra conspicuously lacks in the purely orchestral works. It is a captivating reading and Gimeno is actually a responsive accompanist. The recording perspective is more natural here as well, which certainly helps.
After reading this concise review, I wondered if I’m being too critical. Maybe I’m getting used to Dutilleux’s unique soundworld and am no longer as mystified or intrigued by his music. Not a chance. Pulling from my shelf the absolutely glorious 2014 box set of his orchestral music played by the Seattle Symphony on their own label, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, I am transported to another world. I find myself sitting in their hall, drenched in color and atmosphere and mystery, mesmerized with the glories of this music all over again. It is intoxicating, as if experiencing it for the very first time.
And one instantly observes superior orchestral response. Orchestral colors are vivid and richly hued, and dynamics are more pronounced and expansive, drawing the listener in with total immersion. The readings are much more musically involving. The Scherzo in the symphony, for example, is far more exciting – especially after the lackadaisical Gimeno. And the outer movements are fleet, with momentum and real direction. And Metaboles glitters with color and atmosphere. Orchestral details, string effects and tingling percussion are now all part of the musical fabric, creating otherworldly atmospheres. 
The recording is more spacious and atmospheric as well. The orchestra is spread back 3-dimensionally in layer after layer, defining the enormity of the hall from front to back and corner to corner. This affords a marvelous blend to their sound. And details become more musical – now part of the atmosphere rather than matter-of-fact. And the strings are lush and silky, shimmering in the acoustic, surrounded by air. It is positively resplendent.
(This Seattle set is a real treasure. Morlot was a worthy successor to Gerard Schwarz, and it’s a shame they didn’t renew his contract. He was perfect for them.)
The Luxembourg Philharmonic is not at fault on this new recording with Gimeno. They play all the notes expertly and proficiently. But without inspiring leadership from the podium, they’re just notes. However, this would be a great recording to study the score to. You can hear everything in bold relief, scrutinized to perfection with laser precision. But without musical purpose, it just isn’t Dutilleux.
I found it amusing reading harmonia mundi’s marketing blurb on the back cover which (accurately) describes Dutilleux’s musical universe as fascinating, mysterious, expressive and “…explores a thousand and one orchestral colours” – the very characteristics Gimeno fails to fully express in this music. And they go on to claim “Gimeno…gives us flamboyant readings”. Not hardly. 
The recordings were made over a 4-year period – none of which is state-of-the-art. Despite meticulous playing, musically, this is a disappointing release.

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