Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 53 (1934) [23:18]
Rapsodie flammande, Op. 56 (1936) [9:58]
Petite Suite, Op. 39 (1929) [13:00]
Concert pour petit orchestre, Op. 34 (1927) [13:12]
Sinfonietta, Op. 52 (1934) [9:40]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, UK, 17-18 October 2006 (Rapsodie); 30 May-1 June 2007 (Sinfonietta); 13-14 August 2008 (Symphony, Petite Suite); Henry Wood Hall, 14 August 2008 and City Halls, Glasgow, 20-21 October 2008 (Concert pour petit orchestre) DDD
NAXOS 8.572135 [69:08]
This CD may conclude Stéphane Denève’s highly regarded series of Roussel’s symphonies and other orchestral works, unless he plans to record The Spider’s Feast and other music not already represented. Of the four volumes, the one under review may well be the most attractive because all of the works come from Roussel’s mature period where he had perfected his own brand of neo-classicism. In Richard Whitehouse’s words in the accompanying booklet, Roussel’s neo-classicism is “wholly personal in its resourceful harmonies, intricate counterpoint, and energetic rhythms.” Indeed, a few minutes spent with any of the works on the disc will reveal the composer’s individual stamp, easily identifying the music as that of Roussel.
The Fourth Symphony has never been as popular as its famous predecessor, but certainly deserves to be. If anything, it has greater depth and more variety in its four movements and, arguably, the most profound slow movement Roussel composed. It may not have the powerful, motoric rhythms of the Third, but compensates with its greater lyricism. It has received its share of excellent recordings, too, but none better than this new one by the RSNO under Denève. His has been a superb series all round and no more so than in the current release. I have not heard the series by Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris, which has also received a good deal of attention, but I doubt that it could be better than this one. Heretofore my favorite recording of the Fourth Symphony has been the one by the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi on a Chandos CD that also includes the second suite from Bacchus et Ariane, the Sinfonietta, and the Third Symphony. While that version of the Fourth is quite good, with excellent performance and sound, Järvi does not bring out the variety in the work the way Denève does. For one thing he races through the slow movement: his timing is 7:04 compared to 9:36 for Denève! This is more than a subtle difference, with Denève finding much more in it without ever sounding the least bit ponderous. Elsewhere, too, one is much more aware of the wonderful orchestration with the many wind solos making their presence felt, but with no distortion in the balance with the strings and percussion. Having listened to this new version numerous times, I cannot imagine a better performance of one of the twentieth-century’s most delightful symphonies.
The remainder of the disc is also up to the level of the symphony, with none of the works being mere fillers. The most familiar of these is undoubtedly the Sinfonietta, composed just before the symphony and resembling its style, though it is scored for strings only. Again it receives a superb performance here, as it did with Järvi, with little to choose between the two recordings. The other pieces on the disc are new to me, but I enjoyed them all. As Whitehouse notes, the Flemish Rhapsody is Roussel’s homage to his Flemish ancestry. It is based on actual Flemish songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is an attractive work. The Petite Suite and the Concert pour petit orchestre are both in three movements, as is the Sinfonietta. The structure is similar, with a slow movement surrounded by two faster ones. However, as in the Symphony No. 4, the slow movements are the meatiest of the three in these two works, being nearly as long as the two faster movements put together. In the Sinfonietta, on the other hand, all three movements are of similar length, even though the andante slow movement’s three-minute length belies its power.
Both the Petite Suite and the Concert are lighter in vein, even breezy, and contain much color and no little humor, but are nonetheless substantial works that really add to one’s appreciation of Roussel’s genius. The Petite Suite is divided into an Aubade, a Pastorale, and a Mascarade, with the Pastorale containing much delectable writing for the woodwinds - oboe, flute, and clarinet - and a muted trumpet solo that has a bit of blues about it. The Concert is equally colorful and memorable and has the character of a concerto grosso, especially apparent in the slow movement with its woodwind solos. The first movement allegro ends on a totally unexpected chord, after much high-spiritedness that returns in the final presto with its driving rhythms reminiscent of those in the Third Symphony. However, this movement, too, ends quietly and rather unexpectedly.
There is not a dull moment in this whole program. With outstanding performances and excellent sound, the disc will appeal strongly to those collecting this series as well as to newcomers to Roussel’s music. I can think of no better place to start.
see also review by Nick Barnard