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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Évocations Op. 15 (1910-11) [45:35]
Pour une fête de printemps Op. 22 (1920) [11:12]
Suite in F Op. 33 (1926) [13:31]
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Alessandro Fisher (tenor), François le Roux (baritone)
City of Birmingham SO Chorus
BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. 2017, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (Évocations), MediacityUK, Manchester
Text and translation included
CHANDOS CHAN10957 [70:45]

Albert Roussel’s work falls fairly neatly into three periods. In the first, he continues the line of impressionism from Debussy; works from this period include the first symphony, subtitled Le Poème de la Forêt, and the ballet Le Festin de l’Araignée. In the second period, which partly overlaps with the first, he moves away from impressionism towards a more full-blooded idiom, closer to Ravel or even d’Indy, his one time teacher, than Debussy and at times showing the influence of Indian music; the key works from this period are the orchestral and choral work Évocations, the opera-ballet Padmâvatî and the sombre but impressive second symphony. In the third period he is a neo-classicist; the works from this period include the third and fourth symphonies and the ballet Bacchus et Ariane. It is on the works of this third period that his reputation is generally considered to rest, as a good but second-rank French composer. However, I am more drawn to the works of the second period, and I regard Padmâvatî in particular as unequivocally a great work.

On this recording we have one work from the third period and the two which open and close the second period. They are played in reverse chronological order. This makes sense as a concert programme and so I shall discuss them in this order.

The Suite in F was one of the many commissions for which we are indebted to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. With its three movements, Prélude, Sarabande and Gigue it is firmly within the neo-classical aesthetic, and this is reinforced by including the words ‘in F’ in the title. The Prélude is vigorous, bold and brassy, hard edged with clean lines and no suggestion of impressionism. The Sarabande has a misty opening from which a sinuous theme emerges which builds to a powerful climax before subsiding into darkness. The Gigue opens with some fragmentary themes but settles down to a vigorous dance with a jaunty tune, which persists despite intrusions from other material.

Pour une fête de printemps was written as the scherzo for Roussel’s second symphony but was removed from it as being too long. It opens dreamily, before moving into a dance which goes through several changes of mood and atmosphere, sometimes menacing and sometimes melancholy. The title suggests it might be something like Fêtes from Debussy’s Nocturnes, but it is not at all like that, in fact it is not really festal at all. It is a strange piece, but so is the second symphony from which it came.

Évocations is the longest work here. It is a three part symphonic poem, with the last movement being vocal with a baritone soloist and a choir, and two small parts for a mezzo-soprano and a tenor – the latter has only one phrase. The evocations are respectively of the caves of Ellora, carved out of the rock, the rose-red city of Jaipur and the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges. It is a lush and somewhat rambling work but full of atmospheric passages. The text for the third part is by M-D. Calvocoressi after a Sanskrit work by Kālidāsa; a hymn to the river and the surrounding landscape. The chorus writing in the third movement is very fine, though the long solo for the baritone, in a kind of chromaticized plainsong, is somewhat ungainly. This is a live recording, but there is no audience noise and applause is not included.

Tortelier was chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 1992 to 2003, during which he made many fine recordings, not only of French music, including a memorable coupling of Le Festin de l’Araignée and Bacchus et Ariane. He seems very happy here returning to his old stomping ground, and the orchestra play with a will for him. He secures the clean lines which are very much part of Roussel’s idiom, even when he is being impressionist, and also his characteristic rhythmic verve. The CBSO Chorus are superb in the third of the Évocations, and the veteran François le Roux does what he can with the baritone solo. The short contributions of the other two soloists are also well handled. The recording is rich and full in the familiar Chandos style and this really helps, with Évocations in particular..

Évocations is a rare bird in the concert hall and on record. There is a Czech version under Zdenĕk Košler which I have not heard. I continue to cherish a version with mainly French forces from Michel Plasson on EMI, but it is over thirty years old. The two other works are on a fairly recent Naxos disc under Stéphane Denève, also in their four disc Roussel collection; there is also an older collection with them on Erato under Jean Martinon, who is always worth hearing in Roussel. This new issue should be warmly welcomed and I hope Chandos will now invite Tortelier to record the symphonies. Perhaps one may even dare hope for a new version of Padmâvatî.

Stephen Barber

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