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Albert ROUSSEL(1869-1937)
Chamber Music: Complete

Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.2 (1902) [28:08] 1
Divertissement, for wind quintet and piano, Op.6 (1906) [6:28] 2
Sonata no.1, in D minor, for piano and violin, Op.11 (1907-8) [32:30] 3
Impromptu, for harp solo, Op.21 (1919) [6:48] 4
Deu poèmes de Ronsard, for flute and soprano, Op.26 (1924) [7:49] 5
Joueurs de flûte, for flute and piano, Op.27 (1924) [9:08] 6
Sonata no.2, for piano and violin, Op.28 (1924) [14:02] 3
Segovia, for guitar, Op.29 (1925) [3:08] 7
Sérénade, for flute, string trio and harp, Op.30 (1925) [15:44] 8
Duo for bassoon and double bass (1925) [4:07] 9
Aria no.2, for oboe and piano (1927-8) [2:11] 10
Trio for flute, viola and cello, Op.40 (1929) [13:55] 11
String Quartet, Op.45 (1931-32) [19:48] 12
Andante and Scherzo, for flute and piano, Op.51 (1934) [4:46] 6
Pipe, for piccolo and piano (1934) [0:57] 13
String Trio, Op.58 (1937) [13:31] 14
Music from Elpénor, Poème radiophonique, for flute and string quartet, Op.59 (1937) [8:00] 15
Andante, from an unfinished Wind Trio, for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1937) [3:13] 16
1 Jet Röling (piano), Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin), Herre-Jan Stegenga (cello); 2 Jet Röling (piano), Paul Verhey (flute), Hans Roerade (oboe), Frank van den Brink (clarinet), Herman Jeurissen (horn), Jos de Lange (bassoon); 3 Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin), Jet Röling (piano); 4 Erika Waardenburg (harp); 5 Irene Maessen (soprano), Paul Verhey (flute); 6 Paul Verhey (flute), Jet Röling (piano); 7 Jan Goudswaard (guitar); 8 Paul Verhey (flute), Erika Waardenburg (harp), Janneke van der Meer (violin), Henk Guittart (viola), Viola de Hoog (cello); 9 Jos de Lange (bassoon), Quirijn van Regteren Altena (double bass); 10 Hans Roerade (oboe), Jet Röling (piano); 11 Paul Verhey (flute), Henk Guittart (viola), Herre-Jan Stegenga (cello); 12 Schönberg Quartet: Janneke van der Meer (violin), Wim de Jong (violin), Henk Guittart (viola), Viola de Hoog (cello); 13 Paul Verhey (piccolo), Jet Röling (piano); 14 Janneke van der Meer (violin), Henk Guittart (viola), Viola de Hoog (cello); 15 Paul Verhey (flute), Janneke van der Meer (violin), Wim de Jong (violin), Henk Guittart (viola), Viola de Hoog (cello); 16 Hans Roerade (oboe), Frank van den Brink (clarinet), Jos de Lange (bassoon)
rec. April, June, December 1994, The Old Catholic Church, Delft
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8413 [3 CDs: 67:43 + 64:44 + 66:31]

This complete recording of the chamber music of Albert Roussel – in chronological order – was previously issued, in the mid-1990s, on the Olympia label (Olympia OCD 706).

The works fall fairly naturally into divisions that correspond to the three CDs. On the first, we have the first three works listed above, covering the years from 1902 to 1908; the second CD contains works written between 1919 and 1928; the third collects the chamber music written in the last eight years of Roussel’s life, between 1929 and 1937.

Roussel’s path towards a career as a composer was a rather unorthodox one. Roussel (who has been orphaned very young), first received piano lessons at the age of eleven; an interest in music soon developed, but on leaving school he studied at Marine College in Brest, and went on to become a naval officer, eventually commanding a torpedo boat in Indochina. His career at sea ended in 1894, when he resigned his commission and he took the decision to devote himself to music. He studied in Paris, first with Eugene Gigout and, from 1898, with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum; he did so with such success that in 1902 he was invited to teach counterpoint at the Schola (where one of his students was Satie). He was in the anomalous position of being both student and Professor. Indeed, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a thoroughly academic quality to both the Op.2 Piano Trio and the Sonata for piano and violin (Op.11). Both have a long-windedness that was not to remain characteristic of Roussel, whose mature work is more readily characterised as terse. In these two early works, it would be fair to say that Roussel the composer has not yet found his own voice. They are the product of his teaching (whether as teacher or as taught), perfectly ‘correct’, and thoroughly committed to the kind of cyclic procedures of which d’Indy was an enthusiastic advocate. They are pleasant enough – particularly the sonata – but don’t really grip or intrigue in any very compelling fashion.

The ‘real’ Roussel is perhaps first discernable in the Divertissement for piano and wind quintet. There is more of his rhythmic quirkiness, there are more adventurous harmonies. Essentially a rondo, structurally speaking, the contrasts between its rapid passages and its rather dreamy slower sections makes for some deliciously crisp music, the musical equivalent of a dry white wine. It gets an engaging performance here, its twists and turns relished, run round the palate as it were, but nothing is lingered over excessively, nothing rushed.

After these early works Roussel’s musical attention very much switched to orchestral writing and to the composition of his opera-ballet Padmâvatî, stimulated in part by the visit he and his wife made to India in 1909, a year after their marriage. It was only some ten years later that Roussel began, again, to write chamber music. The oriental interests which prompted the writing of Padmâvatî are audible in the Impromptu for harp of 1919. Roussel avoids most of the clichés of the harp music of the time, and the three-note motif at the beginning, as it transmutes into the mildly hypnotic main theme which succeeds it, has a distinctive quality that is peculiarly Rousselian, and also underlies most of the succeeding sections of the Impromptu.

The two settings of Ronsard are attractive and mildly haunting, without perhaps being entirely satisfying or especially memorable. Much more striking is Joueurs de flute. Its four short(ish) movements are dedicated to four legendary or fictional players of the instrument: Pan, Tityrus, Krishna and, rather less well known, Monsieur de la Péjaudie, hero of Henri de Régnier’s 1920 novel La Pécheresse. The moods and materials of the four pieces are nicely distinguished. ‘Pan’ (dedicated to Marcel Moyse, later to teach James Galway) has some lean melodic lines which gradually evolve into fuller statement, while never losing the dignity of Pan’s status as a divinity; ‘Tityre’ (dedicated to another important flautist, Gaston Blanquart) is a short, quasi rustic dance, befitting Tityrus’ station as a shepherd (however poetic) in Virgil’s Eclogues. ‘Krishna’, in 7/8 and using an Indian mode (‘Shri’), is bewitchingly sensuous and languorous, the interplay of flute and piano particularly lovely (‘Krishna was dedicated to Louis Fleury, flautist at its first performance in Paris in 1925); the brief ‘M. de la Péjaudie’ (dedicated to Philippe Gaubert) has a rather less timeless quality, and speaks much more directly of the early twentieth century, not least in its bustle and seeming uncertainty of tone and direction. Paul Verhey and Jet Röling give an eloquent and persuasive performance of this excellent suite.

The second Sonata for Piano and Violin is certainly more rewarding than its predecessor. Its opening allegro con moto has a sense of drama and insistent expressiveness, while the central Andante is quietly beautiful, fusing grace and terseness in a manner which is the very essence of Roussel and, perhaps also typical, not entirely without moments of darkness too. The Presto which closes the Sonata is a concise dance, of sorts, drily witty and sharp. The performing partnership of Kantorow and Röling works very well together, some of Kantorow’s phrasing and variety of tone being especially pleasing.

Roussel’s Segovia is an attractive musical tribute to the great guitarist, and Jan Goudswaard conveys much of its charm, but his performance is somewhat compromised by a less than vivid recorded sound. A shame, especially as the recorded sound is generally good on these three discs. Certainly there are no sound problems in the Op.30 Serenade. Indeed, the recorded sound lets us hear very well what Roussel makes of his unusual combination of instruments. The Serenade is one of Roussel’s finest works. The initial allegro has a kind of impudent and easy panache, the instrumental colours filling in around and behind the flute with an almost conversational ease; the slow movement has an air of mystery, of a vaguely tropical (Indian?) sensuality which seems more religious than sexual; there is more direct eroticism in the final movement, with its opening and closing dance rhythms (which could have borne a bit more incisive aggression in the performing) framing a central section in which all energy seems exhausted, all senses fulfilled. As with a few of the pieces on this set, the Serenade perhaps doesn’t get the very best performance it has ever had, but it gets an intelligent, accomplished reading, well worth hearing by those who know the work well and admirably suited as an introduction for those who don’t.

The Duo for bassoon and double bass is altogether slighter, but good fun. It was written for Koussevitzky (a virtuoso of the double bass) on the occasion of his being made a member of the Legion d’honneur. It is a playful piece which enjoys the improbable combination of instruments and the sonorities available through it. The Aria No.2, an arrangement for oboe and piano, made by Arthur Hoérée, of one of the Vocalises written by Roussel for voice and piano, is pleasantly lyrical, even if not a work of any great substance.

On the third CD there are a few pieces which are, for one reason or another, do not make especially significant contributions to the body of Roussel’s work. Pipe was written as an instructional piece for the recorder and is a pretty slight affair; Elpénor was written as part of a radio programme, designed to complement poems by Joseph Weterings and heard as a suite it is somewhat meandering, certainly by the tight formal standards one comes to expect from the mature Roussel. The Andante and Scherzo for flute and piano don’t find Roussel writing as well for the flute as he usually does. The andante from the Wind Trio left unfinished at Roussel’s death is perhaps more of a curiosity than anything else. Elsewhere there are works of rather more gravity. Roussel’s only String Quartet is a minor masterpiece of concision, and gets an excellent performance from the Schönberg Quartet, played as it is with fine judgement of tempo and dynamics and with real commitment. I am surprised that we don’t hear this quartet more often; apart from its own intrinsic merits, its relative brevity would surely make it useful balance in quartet recitals built around a couple of longer works. There are some acerbic yet engaging passages in the opening allegro, an attractively worked out sonata; the adagio has real weight and suggestiveness and the both the scherzo of the third movement and the partially fugal final movement are full of compressed and thoughtful music.

Members of the Schönberg Quartet are on hand again in a fine account of the String Trio, the last work Roussel completed, barely a month before his death (he had a good deal of ill health in the last ten years of his life). It isn’t, I think, only the advantage of hindsight that persuades one of the presence of a kind of haunted pain in much of this trio; the allegro seems more a ghost of previous Rousselian allegros, lacking the sheer substance of the ‘real’ thing; the long and marvellous central adagio is at times disturbingly poignant, at times marked by a kind of wistful resignation; the closing scherzo teeters on the edge of the grotesque, its elegance distorted into a kind of macabre dance. The String Trio is quite a powerful work, in a somewhat discomforting manner, the work, surely, of a composer who knew he hadn’t long to live. The other work of substance on this third disc, the 1929 Trio for flute, viola and cello is altogether less troubled. Its three movements are models of Roussel’s neoclassicism, etched like figures on a frieze, the edges clear, the statements aphoristic. After the slightly false start of his very early work, Roussel developed as a composer who hardly ever wasted a note; he says enough and no more. His music isn’t to all tastes and certainly it is rarely music that invites self-indulgence on the listener’s part, any more than it is ever self-indulgently written.

This attractively packaged set is a convenient assemblage of Roussel’s work in the field of chamber music, a sequence of works characterised by the acute, even astringent, intelligence that has gone into their writing and the distinctive beauty of at least some of the results. In some cases better performances of individual works can be found; but there is nothing here that isn’t at the very least assured and accomplished. Either as an invitation to get to know one aspect of the work of a composer who still seems to me rather underrated, or as a ‘library’ set, or as a genuine source of musical pleasure, this is a reissue much to be welcomed.

Glyn Pursglove




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