This is as good a full-priced introduction to Albert Roussel’s music as you can find anywhere. The Suite in F, his most friendly, cheery orchestral work, exhibits confident sociability and good humor. The Third Symphony is a fairly compact masterwork with bold colors and brash moods, and the Fourth Symphony is even shorter and more poignant, capturing the composer at his most ‘modern’. If Charles Munch’s name is synonymous with excitement in your mind, and the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux with an authentic ‘French’ sound, you will have a good idea what to expect from these performances.
The Suite in F is a work with baroque movement titles (prelude, sarabande, gigue) and, ostensibly, baroque structures, but they are so decked out in resplendent orchestral color, con blasto brass lines, and sleek French tunes that one hardly notices. This is the ideal concert-opener: a bustling beginning with just a tinge of mystery in the dissonant accompanying trumpet lines, a disquieting central slow movement with a vaguely oriental feel, and an absolute riot of a finale. It’s chipper and funny, with passages of exuberantly goofy scoring that recall The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Holst’s Planets and foreshadow later dance and ballet music by the likes of Ravel, Arnold, Milhaud and even Shostakovich.
The Third Symphony squeezes a lot into twenty-five minutes. The compact first movement packs an assertive punch, the opening motif sounding like an angry little man storming out of a room. A surprisingly wistful adagio makes a stab at subtlety before building to a wild climax instead, then reaches a second climax which does fade into nostalgic beauty of an uncommon sort. The finale revives a passage from the opening movement which, in its glittering brass writing and crashing cymbals, presages Respighi. The Fourth is slightly more “modern” in tone, at first, with a disconcerting opening and jarring harmonies and dissonances. But it’s still easy to love: the scherzo is still bubbly, the finale suitably raucous, and the slow movement is one of the best of the entire century, possessed of an ethereal melancholy that feels absolutely timeless.
Mystifyingly, recordings of Roussel’s orchestral music remain fairly rare, but those which do exist are almost uniformly terrific. Part of the reason is that the music is very easy to enjoy, since Roussel’s orchestral palette, generous spirit and high energy level is like that of a twentieth-century Berlioz. But conducting these works extremely well requires the ability to really make the rhythms dance, and to simply let the orchestra go wild. Charles Munch has those skills in spades; so does Stéphane Denève in his recent Naxos series (1 2 3 4), which offers performances fully equal to these in sound which is slightly fuller - but also more reverberant.
The main appeal of this release, besides the natural match between conductor and music, is the new sound restoration by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). The sound picture is not very “deep” at a low level but, when I put on my headphones, it really snaps into focus. Behind the - very thin - hiss is a really vivid, punchy orchestral unit well-captured. The brass peal with satisfying presence … and enthusiasm!; the strings have that distinctive French sound. Only the percussion really suffers: cymbal crashes are hissy and the timpani don’t resound like they do in a modern recording. But the overall sound is actually very good for its age (1965) and something about the orchestra and the way the players are captured suits the music very well. Caveat: this same program is also available on the Warner Elatus label, but I don’t have that disc and was unable to compare the transfers.
The only place where I can say I prefer one performance or another, between Denève and Munch, is the opening of the Fourth Symphony, to which Denève accords a bit more mystery and melancholy. Sergiu Celibidache builds the slow movement of the Suite in F into a grand monument, in a live EMI recording with the Munich Philharmonic, but the outer movements are too preoccupied with clarity and not enough with merriment. EMI’s rich sound quality beats both of the other contenders.
Mostly, Denève and Munch match each other note-for-note for energy, enthusiasm, and vigor, and although the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux sounds more authentically French, the Naxos disc offers the fuller sound picture and more accurate ensemble. For the true Roussel lover, there is only one solution: own both recordings.
Roussel lovers will, justly, have their trigger fingers aiming for the “buy” button. If you are new to the composer, you should try this disc of the “big hits”, handily available in multiple lossless download options on the HDTT website or as a physical CD. If you love it - though there’s really no if about it - move on to the Naxos box set. Or you could do what I did in August: having never heard Roussel’s music before: I listened to a 30-second sample of the Denève Third Symphony and was so enthralled that I ordered the whole box (8.504017) without hesitation. I’ve loved the composer ever since. Albert Roussel’s symphonies, Suite in F, ballet Bacchus et Ariane, early tone poems and Sinfonietta are so boisterous, colorful, funny, sad, exuberant, pensive and full of life that you will want to have them all.