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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane Op. 43 (1930): Suites Nos. 1 and 2 [16.58+19.17]
Aeneas - Ballet in One Act Op. 54 (1935) [39.58]
Orchestre National et Chœurs de L'ORTF/Jean Martinon
rec. 1968, Paris. ADD
ERATO DISQUES 25654 60576-2 [76.13]


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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. Bacchus expels
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.

Rob Barnett

Jonathan Woolf has also listened to this recording

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.

Jonathan Woolf

 


 



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