> Messiaen - Roussel [GPJ]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Turangalila Symphony
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa, Yvonne Loriod, piano
Recorded in 1967
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France/Marek Janowski
Recorded in 1994
Bacchus et Ariane, Suite no.2
Boston Symphony/Charles Munch
Recorded in 1952
RCA RED SEAL 74321 846012 LC 00316 2 CD set; CD1 [77:24] CD2 [61:56] bargain price


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This issue brings together four brilliant recordings by three different orchestras and conductors. They also cover a wide time-span; the Munch Bacchus et Ariane from 1952, the Ozawa Turangalila from 1967 and Janowski’s Roussel symphonies from 1994. All three represent, in their own ways, the best standards of their eras, and it’s a heady experience listening to them. Bear in mind that RCA has always had a characteristic way with recorded sound, basically aiming to knock you out of your seat with sheer ‘pizzazz’. This is not to everyone’s taste; while you feel right inside the orchestra, there is a flat, ‘front-lit’ quality to the sound that is sometimes tiring.

However, there is no denying the brilliance of the sound, the orchestra and the conductor in Messiaen’s huge Turangalila Symphiony, which accounts for the whole 77 minutes of the first CD of the pair. When the LP of the Messiaen first appeared, it created a terrific stir, and was in its way an epoch-making recording, especially as this work was not then the ‘pop’ it has since become. For a long time the recording has been ‘nla’, but it’s great to see and hear it back again, though the modern competition in this particular piece is unusually intense. Chailly’s account is of the same tendency as Ozawa’s, i.e. no-holds-barred, while Previn’s performance, though it’s been around a bit, is still up there with the very best. The piece itself is so famously OTT that there is no sense in a conductor doing anything other than go for it totally, and that’s what Ozawa and the superb Toronto Symphony do, egged on by the RCA engineers. I have to say I’m not ultimately a fan of the piece – don’t care for Messiaen’s music greatly anyway – but if anyone can sell it to me, Ozawa can. After thirty-four years, that’s some achievement. Mind you, CD transfers do have their dangers, e.g. the very noisy traffic in the distance behind the ending of Jardin du Sommeil d’Amour’!

On CD2, we have a very different composer. Albert Roussel was a contemporary of Nielsen and Sibelius, among others, and like them was committed to symphonic composition. We have here two of his best known works, the 3rd Symphony and the second suite of music from his ballet Bacchus et Ariane, as well as the lesser known 4th Symphony. The striking thing about both the 3rd Symphony and the 4th, which follows it on the disc, is their brevity. The 3rd comes in at less than 25 minutes, while the 4th is barely 20, yet they both feel like large-scale works. Janowski and the French Radio Philharmonic give outstanding performances, energetic, stylish and intense, revelling in the bright colours and strong thematic material. The 3rd Symphony would make an ideal introduction to Roussel for anyone unfamiliar with his music. The first movement is full of driving rhythms, while the second is the emotional heart of the work, rising to a massive, impassioned climax. The contrast with this and the third movement, which could easily come from the sound-track for a ‘Carry On’ film (and that is not intended as an insult!), is particularly marked. The finale satisfyingly completes this great 20th century masterpiece. The 4th Symphony is perhaps not quite so immediately striking, though it possesses the same qualities and is just as enjoyable.

CD2 is completed by Charles Munch’s fine account of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane music. The recording is quite exceptional for its age, and few adjustments (aurally or mechanically) are necessary after hearing the two more recent recordings. The Boston SO is of course a world-renowned body, in large part because of Munch’s work with them, and they give this gorgeous music everything they’ve got. The only strange thing is that the important string solo passages sound less than convincing; nothing horrendous, just not terribly good, and certainly not poor enough to take the edge of desirability off this outstanding compilation.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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