Henri Dutilleux, the French composer whose name is at this point more familiar here than his music, received a 70th-birthday tribute Thursday night at the Kennedy Center by one of his most ardent admirers, Mstislav Rostropovich, and the National Symphony.
The program was given over mostly to two of the most notable works in his relatively small output. There were a fairly brief and concise orchestral tour de force called "Me'taboles" and a five-part composition for cello and orchestra called "Tout un monde lointain . . . " ("A Whole World Distant").
Neither of the works on Thursday night fitted into any convenient pigeonholes; they were too tonal to be atonal, too episodic to be classically formal. And for all the dependence on outside references, especially in the citations from Baudelaire in the cello work, the compositions were not really programmatic in any sort of narrative sense.
And they were quite different in character. "Me'taboles" was one of those ingenious virtuoso exercises in the manner of another work whose title is similar, Hindemith's popular "Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme by Weber." Dutilleux's pattern, however, is more terse and its harmony less accessible. It was written on a commission by the late George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and is a true test of any orchestra. The NSO's performance under Rostropovich was alert, if not impeccable.
"Tout un monde lointain . . . ," a more lyric composition on a larger scale, was impeccable, with Rostropovich displaying true wonders at the cello, and Hugh Wolff conducting with great alacrity. The five movements become increasingly reflective as they proceed toward the fourth movement, a sustained melancholy song.
Rostropovich also conducted the Mendelssohn "Reformation" Symphony. It was a bit lax, except for a slow movement with lovely violin playing.