Henri Dutilleux is without a doubt one of the most under-appreciated composers of the 20th (and now 21st) Century. Due in part to his relatively small output. Due also to the fact that his work is difficult to pigeonhole within ready categories that define the movements of Post-War classical music.
This latter fact -- "difficult to pigeonhole" -- is arguably Dutilleux's greatest asset as a composer. He's undertaken an approach very much his own for decades, crafted to the given project at hand. In broad terms, Dutilleux's approach is influenced significantly by French predecessors such as Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel. Additional influences include Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokofiev. But Dutilleux has stridently avoided dogmatic elements of post-modernism, such as a strict adherence to serialism, seen in his French contemporaries the late Olivier Messiaen and even more so Pierre Boulez. In this regard, Dutilleux's often been labeled "conservative" by certain contemporaries and critics. This label is either incorrect entirely, incorrect if assumed pejorative, or both.
Whether or not "conservative", Dutilleux's work has a distinctive, and modern, character that's in substance hardly less adventurous -- even if less dogmatic -- than his contemporaries'. To the everyday listener, what matters about Dutilleux's work is how it sounds, not the dictates (or lack thereof) pursuant to which it was written. Dutilleux's work is typically tonal, but he dabbles with serialism, and with other approaches (harmonic and otherwise).
In the symphonies, Dutilleux displays a great gift for rich, textured orchestral writing that brings to mind French predecessors such as, again, Ravel, and also Berlioz. There's something of Mahler in Dutilleux's orchestration, as well. While the Symphony No. 1 is a precisely constructed, quiet, unassuming sonic arc, the Symphony No. 2 is plucky, exuberant, offbeat, and filled with surprises. In the latter work, Dutilleux exhibits supreme intelligence in calling forth particular, often sparse, orchestral forces. The harpsichord's entries in the conversation throughout the work are, in every instance, a delightful touch. In both works, Dutilleux's sound conveys much in the way of the visual -- a painting in sound, notes on a musical canvas.
Listeners are likely, with reason, to prefer the Symphony No. 2. It's a brilliant and thrilling soundscape. But the thoughtful, and more introverted, Symphony No. 1 is not a work to be overlooked.
This French-issue recording of the works, under Daniel Barenboim, is very well done, and also (at under $7 for full MP3 download) an extraordinary deal.