Though titled after a verse from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… has always been understood as being a modern entry into the cello concerto repertoire. Initially commissioned by Igor Markevitch for superstar cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, each movement of the work is prefaced with a line from a Baudelaire poem. The first movement, “Énigme: Très libre et flexible,” springs from an excerpt from Baudelaire’s Poème XXVII: “And in this strange and symbolic nature.”
A murmuring roll in the timpani and cymbal announce the entrance of the solo cello, declaiming a tentative recitative. This 12-note theme is central to the overall work. The orchestra creeps into the texture, engaging in a dialogue with the soloist. Intensities heighten toward a highly rhythmic section showcasing special effects on the cello. A dramatic high note leads seamlessly into the “Regard: Extrêmement calme,” coupled with the verse “the poison that flows from your eyes, from your green eyes, lakes in which my soul trembles and sees itself upside down” from Le poison. A modal cello melody strains itself against the instrument’s uppermost register. Orchestral strings mirror the cello melody in inverted imitation, responding literally to Baudelaire’s vision of his soul seeing “itself upsidedown.”
“Houles: Large et ample,” inspired by the La chevelure verse “You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream of sails, of rowers, of flames and of masts,” is a scherzo ebbing and flowing in a frantic seascape. An exceptionally difficult cello solo features swelling waves of double stops. Steven Johnson’s description of the middle section is too evocative not to quote, painting it as a “dancing, Debussy-like mosaic of sonorities, including angular scales that tumble up and down, woodblock motives, and pulsed chords that accelerate rapidly.” The meditative La mort des amants. The high cello part reflects the mirror-infused second movement, and indeed Dutilleux has the steadily plucking harp mirror the cello in inversion while the violins mirror it in retrograde. The 12-note recitative that began the work reappears at the end of the movement. Rather disjunct from its contemplative opening verse “Keep your dreams: wise men do not have such beautiful ones as fools!” from La voix, “Hymne: Allegro” begins with an eruption of sound. The cello is angular and agitated, reaching several nervous climaxes that never truly release the tension. The movement serves as a diverse tapestry of different musical textures, suddenly dissipating with a suspended tremolo in the cello.