This disc and a series of others is issued as
a celebration of fifty years of Erato Disques recordings. The
series directors, Anne-Marie Korsbaek and Nicholas Anderson, have
chosen from among the many peaks of the Erato back catalogue.
No doubt you will regret the omission of some old favourite but
in general the selection seems sound. The downside is that these
discs have already been multiply reissued. You may for example
still have the Warners Roussel double.
These two ballets were written in the euphoric
wake of two symphonies. Bacchus following the Third and
Aeneas following the Fourth. Bacchus was premiered
at Paris Opera on 22 May 1931 conducted by Philippe Gaubert. Aeneas,
written for Hermann Scherchen, was first given under Scherchen's
musical direction at the 1935 Brussels International Exhibition.
Both ballets are to classical subjects. Bacchus
tells the story of Theseus's victory over the Minotaur thanks
to Ariadne's thread.Amid the celebrations a figure later revealed
to be the god Bacchus appears having fallen for Ariadne. She faints.
Theseus and the Athenians and he and Ariadne dance in a dream.
When she awakes and tries to throw herself from the cliffs she
is caught up in Bacchus's tender arms and the ballet ends with
the god adorning her brow with a diadem of stars.
Much of Bacchus is thunderously and rhythmically
emphatic as befits a stomping celebration either that or mischievously
impudent and perhaps a little heartless (rather like Markevitch's
ballets) not that you could say that of the enchanted and tender
dream that starts the second movement. The uproarious music reminded
me of Auric and Satie and would have gone well with Diaghilev.
Martinon excels in the climactic ascent at 3.56 at the start of
the Second Suite. The recording lacks nothing in impact and although
one cannot hope for the absolute transparency of a modern recording
the quality is sturdy and carries the finer textures alongside
the rolling brassy fanfares (15.30 tr.2). The resonant acoustic
which adds both atmosphere and a soft focus is well illustrated
by the long resonance at the end of Aeneas.
Aeneas is a little known ballet which
recounts the tale of the founder of Rome and the survivor of Troy.
He consults the Sybil of Cumae who tells him of the trials he
will have to endure. Worldly distractions including Dido do nothing
to alleviate his depression. He rejects his gilded past and turns
from his companions. At last freed of the baggage of his glorious
past Rome is revealed in imperial splendour. The ballet ends in
an impassioned hymn to the entwined bright futures of Aeneas and
Rome. The Greeks may have destroyed Troy but a young and indomitable
Roman Empire will soon eclipse the glories of Greece.
The five years that separate the two ballets
introduced a surprising element of dissonance especially in the
first few minutes of Aeneas. This surfaces occasionally but otherwise
the highlights include the plaintive song of the oboe speaking
for Aeneas the hopeless wanderer (6.20), the metallic clashes
of fate (11.10), the placid beauty of the violin solos at 21.02
and the impassioned cries of 'Aeneas' by the whole choir and by
single voices (33.01). The final paean to Rome and its bright
future encompasses both savagery and eager celebration.
The choirs appear only in Aeneas. Their
suavely sung part comprises some vocalise, some almost shouted
protests (22.45) and oration (34.07) but also singing of the libretto
by the Belgian poet Joseph Wetterings.
It is a pity that Warners chose not to band the
distinct movements separately. The disc is laid out in three tracks:
one for each of the two suites and another for Aeneas.
The notes by François Laurent are short
but to the point and the translation into English by Adrian Shaw.
Sadly the sung texts of Aeneas are not provided.
These are excellent budget recordings ... versions
that are long-time fixtures in the catalogues since the late 1960s.
Martinon is an authoritative interpreter and these capture him
before his migration to Pathé-EMI. This is, I think, the
only available version of the choral-orchestral Aeneas.
Jonathan Woolf has also listened to this
Yan Pascal Tortelier fairly recently dusted off
Roussel’s superb Bacchus et Ariane on Chandos, a work that seems
to air once a decade, as with so much Roussel. Before him Dutoit
recorded it in 1986 and Prêtre shortly before that. Most
conductors give us the concert suites written a few years after
the 1930 premiere, as does Martinon. Is it too late to hope that
audiences and listeners will wake up to Roussel or is he fated
forever to occupy some specialist corner of the collector’s pantheon?
About the only thing wrong with this reissue of the late sixties
classic is that there are no separately tracked bands which can
make following the ballets a sometimes difficult business. But
against that we have the superbly idiomatic conducting and superfine
response of the ORTF orchestra in what sounds like galvanized
and very alert form.
Written in the wake of the Third Symphony it
would be tiring and probably futile to describe just how blistering,
how intense and irresistible is Roussel’s rhythmic drive; how
for all his orchestrational subtlety he is still a magnetically
propulsive writer, how his brass glower and burn. And how he manages
at all times to maintain clarity and formal concision. His rhythmic
cut and thrust, his episodes with clarinet et al remind one of
none other than Gershwin (sample from 8’02 onwards in the First
Suite) and his elysian writing for flutes and his lightness are
always both admirable and poignant. There are moments though of
almost desolate languor in the Second Suite where its dramatic
conclusion can’t quite efface the colourful introspection of the
earlier pages. The two suites mark a concise, kaleidoscopic opportunity
to grasp something of Roussel’s genius.
Aeneas followed five years later, a commission
from Hermann Scherchen. Covering a lot of emotive ground from
crisp anticipation to abject desolation it imbeds a witty vivace
section or two in its forty-minute length. The offstage chorus
makes itself a part of the fabric of the score as do Roussel’s
little Ravelian touches but whether baleful and biting, with superb
lower brass writing, or with the desperately moving string cantilena
from 23.00 with choral chants above it this is a work that conjoins
the fearsome with the reflective. When Roussel unfolds his distinctive
antique woodwind sonorities he implies some vast unstated mythological
past with the simplest, most economical and yet musically devastatingly
effective means. The modernity of his drive is also almost unsettling
audible and when he makes explicit what had before only lain implicit
the work seems to turn on some historical axis and we embrace
the future and the past simultaneously, like the balletic embodiment
of lines from Eliot.
Atmospheric and yet rhythmically alive, colourful
yet complex, richly scored but aerated and clear Roussel’s music
is inexhaustibly inventive and exciting. These are two of his
best ballet scores and the recordings do them full justice.