Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Symphony No. 1 ‘Le poème de la forêt’ (1904-06) [35:30]
Résurrection – Symphonic Prelude (1903) [10:48]
Le marchand de sable qui passe – incidental music (1908) [18:08]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, UK, 20-21 October 2008 (Symphony, Résurrection) and Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, UK, 1-3 April 2009 (Le marchand). DDD
NAXOS 8.570323 [64:26]

This is the third installment in Stéphane Denève’s acclaimed Roussel symphony cycle. I had the privilege of reviewing the disc containing the Symphony No. 2 for this website and am happy to have it again here. Whereas I was not at all acquainted with the latter work, I have heard the Symphony No. 1 a few times in the past, through Charles Dutoit’s recording. Even more than the Second Symphony, this rarely performed first effort on his part sounds little like the neo-classical composer Roussel was to become in his later, and arguably greater symphonies. Here the main influences are his teacher Vincent d’Indy and especially Claude Debussy. Indeed, the symphony, which has the title of Poem of the Forest, is more like an impressionistic four-part symphonic poem than a true symphony. The four movements of the work portray the cycle of the seasons, as follows: The Forest in Winter, Renewal, Summer Evening, and Fauns and Dryads. Each movement is longer than the preceding one, with the first movement lasting slightly more than five minutes and the last one over fourteen. The symphony has a somewhat cyclic structure, too, something Roussel inherited from César Franck, d’Indy’s teacher. The symphony ends quietly as it began. While the symphony recalls Debussy in its delicate orchestration, e.g., the flute and harp duet in the last movement, and its generally impressionist mood, there are hints of the Roussel to come. This is clear particularly in the last movement beginning at about the 1:26 mark where one can hear a pre-echo of the ballet The Spider’s Feast. In any case, whether one considers this a true symphony or a symphonic poem, the work has a lyric beauty that sustains one’s interest throughout. Denève and the Scottish orchestra do not disappoint either and capture the essence of the symphony in a performance of subtlety and warmth.

The other works on the disc are rarer still. The Symphonic Prelude, “Resurrection”, was the first work with which Roussel made his debut an orchestral composer. The work’s title comes from Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, but otherwise bears little resemblance to the novel’s didacticism. It is as fully developed in its ten-minute length and sounds much like a continuation of the symphony with its flute and horn solos, though it is more romantic than impressionistic in its mood. It contains some memorable themes in the brass that call to mind Wagner’s Parsifal. As with the symphony, it begins and ends quietly. The final work on the disc is incidental music Roussel composed for a pantomime, best translated as “The Sandman,” by the dramatist George Jean-Aubry. Like the other pieces on the disc, gentleness and a quiet mood predominate. The work is scored for flute, clarinet, horn, harp and string quartet. Here the option of using orchestral strings rather than a quartet is taken. Of the three works, I found this the most like Debussy in its atmosphere and orchestral color. It contains some ravishing horn, clarinet, and flute solos that haunt the mind. However, listening to this CD from beginning to end in one sitting can seem like too much of a good thing. I think it is best to select each work separately and pair it with a later Roussel opus or that of another composer. As with the symphony, Denève and the orchestra do total justice to both of these “fillers”. If I am not quite as enthusiastic about this release as I was the earlier one in the series I reviewed, it is largely because I did not find the programming as interesting, as varied. The performances themselves leave nothing to be desired. Thus, if you are collecting this series — and all fans of Roussel should be — do not hesitate to add this to your collection. Again, Richard Whitehouse provides expert notes and the presentation with its cover reproduction of The Valley of the Sedelle in Crozant by Guillaumin is up to Naxos high standards.

Leslie Wright