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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane, Op.43, Suites No.1 (1930-31) [17:09]; No.2 (1930-31) [18:51]
Symphony No.2, Op.23 (1919-21) [41:37]
Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. Théâtre Mogador, Paris, Feb 2005 (Bacchus), Paris Conservatoire, July 2005 (Symphony)
ONDINE ODE 1065-2 [77:58]
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There’s no doubt what the main draw of this superb new Ondine disc is Roussel’s Second Symphony has always been overshadowed by the Third and Fourth, which have quite a few competing versions in the catalogue. By contrast, the only real rival to Eschenbach in No.2 is the 1969 Martinon performance with the ORTF Orchestra, currently still listed on mid-price Erato. I have the original LP and there’s no doubting the calibre of Martinon’s conducting – he did, after all, study with the composer for a time. But there’s also no doubting the power of this latest version, with tidier orchestral playing and obviously superior sound quality.
Eschenbach is on record as stating that the Second Symphony was something of a musical revelation to him. This has evidently spurred him to give a deeply considered and thoroughly well prepared account of this dark, in places disturbing score. It has been easy to read into the music depictions of war-torn Europe and old certainties shattered. In fact, the composer – admittedly reluctantly – eventually added a programme that related each of its movements to the three ages of man. Thus, the first movement ‘expresses the ardour and enthusiasm of young people en route to life; the second…undemanding pleasures and the third pain, bitterness, revolt and, finally, the sense of peace that comes with a feeling of serenity as man rises above his passions’
You may feel, as I do, that these notes are almost as unhelpful as the war scenario, and that the best thing is to do what Roussel originally wanted, ‘for listeners to find their own way around the work without the help of a programme’. It certainly seems to me that Eschenbach treats it as ‘absolute’ music, and he seems aware of the experiments that Roussel was making in terms of orchestral balance and colouring. Tempos and phrasing are marginally more relaxed than Martinon, something which allows the detail to shine through without losing any sense of symphonic purpose. The delicious, typically French, pastoral scoring of the central scherzo is a good case in point, where Roussel’s rather thick textures are given light and air by Eschenbach. The deft, pointed dashes of harp, flute and celesta that permeate the movement like little rays of light are beautifully judged, as is the contrasting string sonority, which in the finale particularly, emerges with a dark, sinewy sobriety reminiscent of Shostakovich. There are plenty of moments where the more neo-classically inclined Roussel comes to the fore, to be sure, such as the driving allegro of the first movement, but overall the impression this symphony leaves, at least to me, is of an almost Brucknerian intensity leavened by some ravishingly diaphanous orchestration. As Damien Top’s note makes clear, it may have struck some contemporary listeners as formless, but the ever prescient André Caplet noted that the music conveyed ‘a message of rare quality’.
After such a riveting version of the symphony, it would have been a shame if the much more famous Bacchus et Ariane ballet had not been up to scratch. Luckily, all is definitely well, with a marvellous blend of pulsating excitement and intoxicating sensuality. There is an almost electric charge in the concluding ‘Bacchanale’, yet one could hardly ask for more tenderness in the evocative end to Act 1, where Bacchus puts Ariadne to sleep. It’s always amazed me that conductors could opt just for Act 2 when the whole ballet contains so much wonderful music. I’ve always had a soft spot for Georges Prêtre’s EMI recording from 1984 which, like Jan Pascal Tortelier’s recommendable Chandos release from 1996, has Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast) as its coupling. At least Tortelier opts for virtually the complete feast, but it still can’t match the Ondine disc for rarity and plain value for money. Audio quality is excellent and though this may be full price, it’s worth every penny.
Tony Haywood


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