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, Scotland, 20-21 October 2008 (Symphony and Prelude); Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 1-3 April 2009 (Incidental music)
NAXOS 8.570323 [64:26] 

As part of the Naxos survey of the Roussel Symphonies this disc is pretty much self-recommending. All of the qualities in evidence in the first two volumes from Denève and the excellent RSNO are repeated here. Naxos is being rather canny by splitting the symphonies across four discs thereby allowing the fillers to build a diverse picture of Roussel’s orchestral output. For those new to the sound-world of Albert Roussel I would not recommend this disc before the others for the simple reason that previous volumes contain more characteristic and ultimately superior music. But that is not to diminish the calibre of the music let alone the music-making on offer here.

More than any other composer I can think of Roussel’s four symphonies plot a strongly linear development of his compositional personality from the impressionism of the First Symphony recorded here to the neo-classicism of his Fourth Symphony. A potted biography helps elucidate quite how Roussel ended up with his unique style. Born in 1869, he served in the French Navy until the age of 25 visiting the Far East where the music and culture there made a profound impression. He joined Vincent D’Indy’s composition class at the Schola Cantorum in 1898 and such was his ability that he was invited to take over the counterpoint class there just four years later. It is worth remembering that this institute was only founded in 1894 as a reaction against the Paris Conservatoire. D’Indy encouraged the study of music of early ages as well as the strict application of form. Roussel’s First Symphony is subtitled ‘Le poème de la forêt’ with each of its four movements representing a forest in one of the seasons. Hence it is something more of a symphonic suite than a symphony although Roussel introduces thematic interrelations to give it a symphonic unity more akin to his teacher’s Symphonie Cevenole. For all the flashes of ingenuity and individuality you can’t help but feel that this is a work in which the composer is trying to fuse the ideas and concepts of others rather than forge his own. There are many passing beauties here - all well defined in this excellently prepared performance - but it is a transitional work without the exultant muscularity of the later works. Personally I prefer the work’s first and third movements most. The first movement, entitled Forêt d’hiver, is all shuddering chill and mist. There is marvellously evocative playing from the orchestra here, the woodwind cold and haunted with an exquisite oboe solo [track 1 2:35]. A brief gale blows through the wood - pre-echoes of Bax’s November Woods here although without the sustained fury or transplanting of human emotions into an elemental force. From this there is an effective but slightly obvious transition into the rebirth of life in the second movement Renouveau. Here the strings shimmer and the (ultimately predictable) woodwind twitter and swoop. This movement seems to owe more to Debussy than the others - not harmonically but in the handling of the orchestra - particularly La Mer - although given that they are nearly synchronous in their composition I might well be doing Roussel a gross disservice! One of Denève’s great talents in this repertoire is the way he is able to fuse the disparate sections together to create a coherent whole. In lesser hands the reflective passages can become longeurs and wallow in their own sensuous beauty. This is particularly true of the third movement - a nocturnal Soir d’été. It is very atmospheric but is a tad formulaic in its use of woodwind songs over string tremolandi and triplets. At this stage in his career, as mentioned before, Roussel tends to rehash the orchestrational traits of others - I’m thinking here of recurring instrumental doublings. However, you have to be stony-hearted not to be swept along by the rapturous string melody around 4:30 of track 3. After three movements of a non-sentient woodland the finale Faunes et dryades is a little incongruous. By far the longest movement of the symphony, the subject allows for longer passages of sustained energetic writing than elsewhere before the symphony sinks back to the misty murk of its opening; cyclic symphonically and seasonally. Again Denève navigates the transitional passages between tempi changes with total conviction. Norman Demuth in his study of the music of Roussel - Albert Roussel published by United Music Publishers 1947 - compares it to Dukas’ La Peri - which I feel is a good comparison. He also makes the valid point that at this stage in his compositional life Roussel did not make use of counterpoint either in the way he had been taught it at the Schola Cantorum or as he would evolve his own individual version in his later works.

There are several other performances of this symphony in the catalogue. I have not heard the well-received Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach version on Ondine (coupled with the 4th Symphony). To my mind it easily supersedes the Orchestre National de France/Charles Dutoit 2-CD set of all four symphonies available at bargain price on Apex. Denève’s performance deserves to be measured against the very best.

The works that complete the disc are of more variable merit and neither mark significant points along the path of Roussel’s compositional development. His Résurrection - Symphonic Prelude has always struck me as one of his dullest works. Dating from 1903 it marked his compositional debut as an orchestral composer. The titular Resurrection comes from Tolstoy’s eagerly awaited novel of the same name that was set operatically by Alfano of Turandot-completion fame. That opera is actually rather enjoyable. The plot in a nutshell involves Katyusha, who in the span of the book goes from innocent girl to imprisoned prostitute to redeemed and resurrected social worker in Siberia. Even liner-note writer Richard Whitehouse struggles to find the linkage between that narrative and what you hear. Not that that would bother me if the piece didn’t seem so earnest and grey in tone - an Isle of the Dead without the 5/8 or the laughs. Even Demuth who enthuses about the composer at every turn can only remark “had Roussel continued along these lines, he might well have developed into a ‘respected’ composer and no more”. Certainly his next large-scale orchestral (non-symphonic) work, Evocations of about five years later is a quantum leap forward - as is the interim symphony already discussed.

For collectors the real treat of this disc is the four movement suite of incidental music from Le marchand de sable qui passe. This has rarely been recorded and I cannot find a version using full orchestral strings in the catalogue. Certainly the use of strictly chamber-scaled forces would allow the essential simplicity, almost austerity of the work to come through. However, the more I listened to this performance the more I was convinced by the validity of the larger orchestral treatment. Originally scored for string quartet, flute, clarinet, horn and harp Roussel uses this simple musical texture to beautifully simple effect - the only difference here is the string parts are played by a section and not individuals. The benefits are that a group of strings are able to provide a haze of tone; an individual cannot. Also, and possibly more importantly the solo wind parts, and in particular the horn and harp are able to float their lines over and within the string texture without there being any balance issues. All this is hugely aided by Denève’s hyper-sensitive response to the muted colours Roussel paints so exquisitely. Try the very opening of the second movement (track 7) - a gently desolate habañera rhythm quickly dissolves into a gently musing melody. Roussel at his most Satie-esque. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra again acquit themselves superbly - really beautiful wind and horn playing and strings that sustain the intensity of long passages of slow moving quiet music to perfection. Clearly the players respond superbly to their musical director. Pardon the oxymoron but there is an austere sensuality here, a kind of contained rapture that shows, even in this relatively minor work, the progress Roussel had made as a composer in just a few years The play in question was by George Jean-Aubry and it was premiered in December 1908. 
Just occasionally I think the playing of the orchestra feels a fraction cool although this should not be played with the kind of Straussian full-emotional throttle. I am sure this has more to do with the chosen interpretative style rather than the sound of the orchestra as recorded. Tim Handley has successfully produced and engineered many discs at these venues and certainly he prefers a (commendably) naturally balanced sound-stage. I do wonder if this is occasionally at the price of losing some of the lower resonant frequencies and bloom to the string choir. I noticed that for the suite the harp was moved to the centre of the sound-stage - this work was recorded at sessions six months after the rest of the programme - which makes good sense as it integrates the harp’s sound well into this lighter-textured work.

All in all another clear hit in this superb cycle. It leaves one eagerly awaiting the fourth disc. I will be interested to see the couplings - probably the Spider’s Banquet ballet but I would love to hear an Evocations from Denève. Demuth is a great admirer of that work and although I have enjoyed previous recordings from Kosler on Supraphon (particularly) and Plasson on EMI, I suspect this Naxos team would have something very special to say. 

Nick Barnard