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| Albert ROUSSEL
Quatre Poèmes, Opus 3
Quatre Poèmes, Opus 8
La Ménace, Opus 9
Flammes, Opus 10
Deux Poèmes chinoises, Opus 12
Deux Mélodies, Opus 19
Deux Mélodies, Opus 20
Deux Poèmes de Ronsard, Opus 26
Odes anacréontiques, Opus 31
Odes anacréontiques, Opus 32
Deux Poèmes chinoises, Opus 35
Jazz dans la nuit, Opus 38
A flower given to my daughter
Deux Idylles, Opus 44
Deux Poèmes chinoises, Opus 47
Deux Mélodies, Opus 50
Deux Mélodies, Opus 55
Marie Devellereau (Soprano), Yann Beuron (tenor), Laurent Naouri (baritone), Billy Eidi (piano), Étienne Plasman (flute), Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra; Jean-Yves Ossonce (conductor)
Recorded May and July 2001, Luxembourg
TIMPANI 2C2064 [2CDs: 49.38+55.47]
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Albert Roussel is one of the most important composers of his generation, and a hugely significant figure in French music. Although he is widely known for only a small number of pieces, it is clear on close acquaintance with any of these (such as the magnificent ballet score, Bacchus et Ariane) that here is a composer of the front rank.
Roussel's songs are therefore to be recommended as thoroughly worthy of investigation by any sensitive and intelligent listener. By anyone reading this review, therefore.
While the running times for the two discs do not at first sight seem particularly generous at fifty and fifty-five minutes respectively, the option of a single-disc issue was clearly not available, and in any case the price is appealing. What is more, the sound perspective is consistently accurate and atmospheric, and the accompanying booklet really excellent. Not only are there some detailed and perceptive introductions by Guy Sacré, himself a notable song composer, but the full texts are included in clearly designed and legible form.
What then of the music, and of the performances? The songs traverse the whole span of Roussel's creative career, and the first of them are rather typical of 19th century French mélodies, though of course none the worse for that. Only one of these pieces requires the indulgence of an orchestra: La Ménace of 1908. It is quite a substantial piece, and as such Roussel's longest song, enhanced by the sensitivity and variety of the orchestral support to the excellent baritone of Laurent Naouri.
The standard achieved there is typical of the whole; for all three singers give the impression of being involved in a labour of love. The groups of songs are actually split among them. Therefore the early Poèmes, Opus 3 feature two appearances by Naouri and one each by Marie Devellereau and Yann Beuron. The result is inevitably to disturb any notion that these songs were grouped by Roussel in the manner of a cycle. Rather these performances treat each song individually and in its own right. One wonders how things might have changed if the policy had been different, though there are some shorter groups, such as the two sets of Odes anacréontiques, which are taken by Naouri (TRY CD2, TRACK 4: 0.00). And most effectively too.
Another imaginative and successful feature of the collection is the way that the instrumental contributions support the vocal lines. Nowhere is this more so than in the marvellous Poèmes de Ronsard, in which the obbligato flute of Étienne Plasman makes a special and telling contribution (TRY CD2, TRACK 1: 0.00).
A feature of the collection is the importance of material associated with the East, and with China in particular. As a young man Roussel embarked upon a naval career and enjoyed some success. He travelled widely and the experience of the east never left him. But his chosen poems are sometimes western, either French or English as well as Chinese, and their melodic lines are always interesting, full of character and 'eastern promise'. For Roussel was confident when handling these imageries, using subtle clashes within the texture to telling effect.
The fusion of words and music is always a special feature of French song, for the beguiling sound of the language was surely an encouragement to composers to respond accordingly. Roussel has a particularly good rhythmic sense in this regard, which is best found, perhaps, in the Poèmes chinoises, Opus 47, which have a truly crystalline quality. The soprano Marie Devellereau emerges from these performances with great credit (TRY CD2, TRACK 18: 0.00).
Away from the Chinese songs is Jazz dans la nuit. This frothy number, again taken by Devellereau, recalls the Paris of the 1920s when the new American style was all the rage. Different again is the James Joyce setting, A flower given to my daughter, a short but telling song taken most appealingly by the tenor Yann Beuron (TRY CD2, TRACK 14: 0.00). It helps having idiomatic French voices in this repertoire, since it is more possible for the nuances of vocal setting to be felt.
There are also the Vocalises, which perhaps class as chamber music rather than songs, since the vocal lines are instrumental, and do not involve texts. They are beautifully written and sensitively performed, which can also be said of the whole collection, which can be accounted a great success.
Roussel is a major composer who is well worth exploring.
His cause is well served here.
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