The first ECM release dedicated exclusively to music by the doyen among contemporary French composers offers a comprehensive overview of Dutilleux's highly original and energetic work for one and two pianos ("Figures de résonances"). Setting off with Dutilleux’s official “opus 1”, the Piano Sonata of 1946–48, the album documents the composer’s “trajectory from extended tonality to a sound world totally of his own invention, in which harmonies of dazzling iridescence reflect brilliant rhythmic and melodic gestures” (Robert Levin).
The American pianist (born in 1947), an internationally recognised expert on classical period practise and not least known as a long-standing musical partner to violist Kim Kashkashian, has long been an ardent pioneer in the field of contemporary music. He regularly gives premieres of new works by composers such as John Harbison or Stanley Walden. Levin first met Dutilleux during his summer season as Director in Residence at Nadia Boulanger's Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau in 1979 and has been his close friend ever since. Both the selection and the order of pieces and all questions concerning the musical text and its corrections were discussed between composer and performer in great detail. When he received the final mix, Dutilleux told Robert Levin he couldn’t imagine a better rendering of this music.
Levin had planned to include the sonata already in the programme for his debut in New York in 1987. “However, Dutilleux counselled me not to play the piece which he didn’t consider to be representative for his œuvre after almost forty years. This is all the more understandable as Dutilleux’s artistic development in the course of the years is no less astounding than Strawinsky’s or even Picasso’s. Back in the eighties, Dutilleux intended to finish a couple of preludes which he wanted me to perform, but as he usually works so meticulously slowly and with such precision, it took him another year to complete the four pieces.”
The fact that Dutilleux wrote comparatively little piano music after his early years might be explained with his early international success and the constant demand for his works from conductors such as Charles Münch or George Szell and from soloists such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern and Anne-Sophie Mutter. “The première of Dutilleux’s violin concerto ‘L’arbre des songes’ was scheduled at least five times but time and again he eventually withdrew the score to continue work on it. He truly conceives and writes his music molecule by molecule. One tends to forget about the painstaking effort he takes for years and years with his pieces. Of course I had always hoped for a piece by Dutilleux written especially for myself…”
Levin’s predilection for French music dates back to his youth when, starting from the age of twelve, he was able to spend several summers with the great Nadia Boulanger in France. “When I was 14 I studied for an entire year with her. The teaching programme included music theory, composition, piano and organ. She arguably was the greatest pedagogical talent in music, as one can deduce from the utmost individuality of her pupils such as Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein or Quincy Jones. Instead of applying one rigorous teaching programme she insisted on clarity, discipline and solid craftsmanship”, says Levin. When ECM’s Manfred Eicher suggested Robert Levin to record a solo recital it was immediately obvious to him to put a strong focus on French music. “It took us until the early years of the new millennium to agree on Dutilleux. And as I wanted to play all the pieces extensively on the concert platform before recording them, another couple of years passed to complete the album.” Unintentionally it has become a homage to Geneviève Joy whose interpretations of Dutilleux’ piano works, according to Robert Levin, “provide the lodestar to all of us who seek to follow in her footsteps.”
Robert Levin’s many recordings include Mozart piano concerti with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, and Beethoven concerti with John Eliot Gardiner und the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. As Kim Kashkashian's regular piano partner he has recorded for ECM New Series since 1984, most recently "Songs from Spain and Argentina, released in autumn 2007. Alongside his concert activities Levin is a noted theorist and Mozart scholar. His completion of the Mozart Mass in C Minor was premiered in Carnegie Hall in January 2005. Robert Levin is a professor of humanities at Harvard University and artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival.
Ya-Fei Chuang, born in Taiwan, won the Cologne International Piano Competition at age 18. She studied in Freiburg with Robert Levin and in Cologne with Pavel Gililov. Chuang performs extensively all over the world and plays duos with Kim Kashkashian and Steven Isserlis. She teaches at the Boston Conservatory and gives masterclasses in Asia, Europe and the US, including at Tanglewood, and the Mozarteum Salzburg. Her recordings are released by various labels.