Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast), Op 17, complete ballet (1912) [32:27]
Pâdmavatî, two suites from the Opera-Ballet (1918) [22:15]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. 4-5 October 2010, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
NAXOS 8.572243 [54:42]
When Naxos issued Stéphane Denève’s recordings of Albert Roussel’s symphonies as a 4 CD box set, I snapped it up - having never heard a note of Roussel - and devoured it with gluttonous delight. Roussel is a genius, but he’s slipped through the cracks because his music is so hard to pigeonhole. Sometimes he’s a Debussian impressionist, as in the ballet Le marchand de sable qui passe; sometimes he writes like the Ravel of Mother Goose, as in Le Festin de l’araignée (featured here), sometimes he blends that French sound with a brash, muscular exuberance in the manner of Respighi (Symphony No 3, Bacchus et Ariane), and the rest of the time he’s his own incomparable self. So the fact that Naxos is offering us one more (alas, final!) volume in its Roussel series is a terrific treat.
Le Festin de l’araignée, variously translated on this CD as “The Spider’s Feast,” “The Spider’s Banquet,” and (incorrectly) “The Spider’s Web,” is a 1912 ballet presenting the lives of insects in a garden; the booklet notes inform me that the insects are used to merrily ape the foibles of human behavior. This is the complete ballet, with wonderfully named cues like “Entrance of the dung beetles”, and the entire second part is a fourteen-minute depiction of the birth, dancing, death, and funeral (!) of a mayfly.
This is from the height of Roussel’s impressionistic period, when his style had much in common with Debussy and Ravel; that much is obvious from the very beginning, scored with tenderness for flute over muted strings. There is an assortment of striking coloristic effects associated with various insects; the fruit worms, for instance, inch forward slowly in a cloud of surprising prettiness, while the mantises strike a gruffer tone and the ants dart about with surprisingly graceful agility. The mayfly’s dance is a highlight, marked by a brief but winsome violin solo. At the very end of the mayfly’s funeral, the flute melody from the opening returns, bringing this gentle, quiet, softly witty ballet to a close.
The opera-ballet Pâdmavatî, and the two suites recorded here, are almost completely unknown - there’s a full recording helmed by Michel Plasson on EMI - which makes it more of a pity that they’re also nearly impossible to describe. Can I just say they’re absolutely ravishing and leave it there? This is Roussel at his most Roussel-like: mysterious, exotic, with darker tones foreshadowing the Symphony No. 2, but also with bounding, energetic dances, a seductive flute solo, spooky harp strumming, and a finale which nearly works itself into hysterics several times before the brass and bass drum are calmed down by a gorgeous melody from the cellos. The sheer amount of stuff Roussel manages to cram into 22 minutes is unbelievable.
I still remember my thought upon hearing Roussel for the first time, when Naxos issued that box set of the symphonies: “Where has this composer been all my life?!” A glance at my log shows that I’ve listened to at least one performance from this five-disc series about once every three days so far this year. The Suite in F, with its glittering merriment; the compact punch of the Third and Fourth symphonies; the nightscapes of the First Symphony and Le marchand de sable qui passe; the sheer hyperactive thrill ride of Bacchus et Ariane; now, too, the hypnotic Indian dreamland of Pâdmavatî. All aided by the fact that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Stéphane Denève, have maintained an amazingly high standard of play throughout the series, with stunning brass playing and some of the best sound Naxos has ever recorded. In fact, this is one of the best series Naxos has ever released, full stop, and I’m very sad indeed that it is ending without tackling the ballet Aenéas, the choral Psalm 80, and the very brief concertos for cello and piano. If one of the concertos had appeared here, everything else would have fit on a sixth and final disc. As is, a Timpani CD containing both Aenéas and Psalm 80 is the best way of completing your collection.
Anyway: if you’ve been collecting this series, you will need this CD. If your Roussel discs date from the era of Jean Martinon, Michel Plasson and Charles Munch, you should know that the glorious digital sound does not entail any compromise in energy or idiomatic orchestral sound. If you somehow have yet to hear Roussel, my advice isn’t to buy this album as a starter. My advice is to buy all five in one go. You’ll understand when you suddenly want to shout: “Where has this composer been all my life?!”
P.S. I didn’t think much of the cover painting until I turned the CD case over and saw the name of the artist.
As sad as it is that this Naxos series had to end, the final volume is just as glorious as the first four.