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Albert ROUSSEL (1869 - 1937)
Symphony No.4 in A major Op.53 (1934) [23:18]
Rapsodie flamande (1936) [9:58]
Petite suite (1929) [13:00]
Concerto 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, Scotland, 17-18 October 2006 (Rapsodie); 30 May - 1 June 2007 (Sinfonietta); 13-14 August 2008 (Symphony; Petite Suite); City Halls, Glasgow, Scotland 20-21 October 2008 (Concert)
NAXOS 8.572135 [69:08] 

Experience Classicsonline

This is the fourth disc in the Naxos/Denève/RSNO survey of the music of Albert Roussel (see reviews of Vol. 1, Vol. 2 & Vol. 3). Although all four symphonies are now safely and successfully released the absence from this collection of both Evocation and more significantly Le Festin de l'araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) would suggest to me that we are in line for at least one more Roussel disc from this winning combination. A glance at the recording dates alone will show that this is very much a bringing together of recordings from numerous sessions over a period of three years dating back to 2006. But this should not imply for an instant any kind of rag-bag approach. In fact quite the reverse, it is a tribute to both the Naxos programmers and in particular to Denève’s artistic consistency that this disc presents such a coherent picture of Roussel’s oeuvre. 

I have written elsewhere that I cannot think of any other composer whose symphonies mark so clearly his linear development from Impressionistic rapture to seriously cyclic Scola Cantorum to strict Neo-Classicism. Because the Symphony No.3 represents the point on the journey where the balance between the neo-classical and lush impressionism is most finely achieved that symphony has always been the most popular of the Roussel canon. By the time he reached Symphony No.4 Roussel was looking to pare his formal and musical palette to a rigorous minimum. On a simplistic level this can be seen in the duration of his symphonies which run from 35 verdant minutes for his No.1 through a lingering 43 minutes of No.2 to the compact 25 minutes of No.3 arriving at a terse 23 minutes for No.4.

None of the works presented here are ‘rare’ and all are likely to be already present in the collections of admirers of Roussel’s work. Certainly there is stiff competition from recordings old and new. However, quite aside from the bargain price benefit of this Naxos disc there are many reasons for seriously considering these performances. Throughout this series I have been particularly impressed with the way the orchestra has moulded its sound to suit any given aspect of Roussel’s compositional world. Likewise, engineer/producer Tim Handley has provided an ideal recorded environment which helps to emphasise the style of the work in question - this is a beautifully engineered disc. Given that this disc focuses on the later, more strictly neo-classical works it should be no surprise that the RSNO play with clean-limbed athletic objectivity. I keep coming back to a mind’s-eye image of those black and white films of great crowds of people engaged in mass calisthenics! It is hugely impressive in a way that engages the head rather than the heart. But clearly that was exactly what Roussel had in mind. The sound-world he creates has moved far distant from the sensuous delights of his extraordinary opera/ballet Padmâvatî - all the more remarkable when one realizes this stylistic change occurred in little more than a decade from the 1923 premiere of the opera to the 1934 composition of the last symphony. Not that the symphony is without moments of considerable beauty; the Largo introduction to the first movement includes stunning woodwind solos over lamenting strings; I’m thinking in particular of the brief oboe solo at 1:50 into track 1. Denève has a real knack for moulding phrases and allowing them to ebb and flow without becoming becalmed. When the angular Allegro con brio of the first movement bursts in the contrast with what has come before has all the greater impact. Throughout these later works Roussel seems to prefer - certainly in the quicker movements - melodic outlines that are jagged and widely spaced. It is as if he is very deliberating rejecting any kind of lyrical flowing line that step-wise melodies would allow or imply. Bluntly put this is considerably harder to play too but the performance of the RSNO is never less than first rate - the strings in particular dispatching their parts with an impressive ease. Generally I would categorise Denève’s approach to late Roussel as being lean and muscular. Examples abound in all of the works presented here but it strikes me that I have never heard Roussel’s brass writing presented with such incisive flashing power as here. Again, the players have adapted the tone they produce superbly - this is a tight brazen edgy sound-world that I am sure is absolutely right - and very exciting to boot. There is an equally valid approach which emphasises a lighter more nonchalant style - I’m thinking here of some of the older French sourced recordings from Jean Martinon. On balance I personally prefer the Denève vision as I think it chimes in more with other contemporary music of the 1930s with motor rhythms and a certain ‘dehumanising’ mechanistic style if at the expense of some Gallic wit.

Interesting too that Roussel prefers to use diminutives in many of the titles for his later works. Hence we have here a Petite Suite, a Sinfonietta, and even a concerto for Petit Orchestre. Again this all seems to stem from the same chaste aesthetic that seeks to reject excess. Roussel is not a master orchestrator in the way that the term is applied to compatriots like Ravel or Debussy. He has a preference for blocks of timbre with a greater use of contrapuntal writing than either. Curiously, I have always found his use of percussion to be disappointingly conventional - perhaps again this was a rejection of anything too obviously flamboyant. Part of this rejection might explain the move away from the larger instrumental groups used in the symphonies and ballets to the less diverse, quasi-chamber instrumentations of his later works; the Sinfonietta here is for strings alone. Sticking out rather sore-thumb-like in the midst of this rejection of the sensuous is the second work on this disc; the Rapsodie flamande Op.56. As the title implies it is a compilation of Flemish folk tunes very much put together in the style of the nationalistic rhapsodies beloved of composers several decades earlier than its 1936 composition. The liner-notes make no reference to its origin but I cannot believe it can have been produced for anything else than a commission that for some reason could not be refused. It is by far the least interesting work here and although played to the absolute hilt - this is easily the most convincing performance I have heard of this piece - it smacks of duty rather than inspiration.

The remaining three pieces are possibly Roussel’s most perfectly achieved neo-classical works. Each is in a three movement fast-slow-fast form. The longest just breaks the thirteen minute barrier. Again Denève underlines the objectivity of the music. That being said the Petite suite opens with an Aubade [track 6] which is as buoyant and good-humoured as anything Roussel ever wrote. No gentle sunrise this, more an early morning run! Denève allows the central movements of both the Petite suite and Concert pour petit orchestre to unfold with beautifully controlled playing. Again, I found myself spellbound by the woodwind generally and the oboe especially. The disc is completed with the string Sinfonietta. Again Roussel opts for a strongly contrapuntal muscular approach. It is similar in its sound world to Honegger’s Symphony No.2 although that work was written a good seven years or so later. I like the fact that this piece has been placed last on the disc - although not the latest opus number - its use of limited tonal resources and the almost perfect formal balance of 3x3 minute movements seems to represent the ideal fusion of form and function for Roussel. Again the RSNO perform with easy precision.

As I wrote before, there is stiff competition for all of these works. Most recently I see a cycle from Christopher Eschenbach with the Orchestre de Paris on Ondine has been well received but those three discs that cover the symphonies have allowed for fewer couplings than this Naxos cycle although the Spider’s banquet is included. But for a cogently performed, superbly engineered sequence with all of the Naxos price benefits this is a bargain hard to resist. Along with the first release which included the Symphony No.3 and the marvelous Bacchus et Ariadne ballet I would suggest this is an excellent introduction to Roussel’s very particular compositional world. 

Nick Barnard



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