The mature music of Albert Roussel (1869-1937) represents a high water mark of early 20th-century French neoclassicsm. Roussel's symphonies are crystaline compositions of great integrity combining clarity, grace and logic in a synthesis of counterpoint, impressionistic colorism, and potent rhythms and dissonance. Until very recently, listeners wanting newer recordings of these works had few truly good options to choose from: a version of the Third and Fourth on Chandos with Neeme Jaervi is deeply inadequate, while the complete symphonies with Charles Dutoit does not appear to have garnered a lot of favor. But just in time for the seventieth anniversary of Roussel's death, a group of recent recordings has given Roussel-lovers cause to rejoice: Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris have given us recordings of the First, Second, and Fourth, and now we have this terrific new version of the Third on Naxos.
This recording has received several enthusiastic reviews, including one in Gramophone magazine. In Stephane Deneve the Royal Scottish Orchestra has a leader that obviously understands the French idiom, and leads a performance of the Third Symphony that is attentive to all the expressive requirements of the work. The pounding opening is attacked with vigor, the rhythms are sharply etched, and the dissonant outbursts that interrupt at various points in that movement are delightfully shocking. Yet Deneve gives plenty of expressive shaping (including great flexibility of tempo) and reveals oases of calm in the midst of turmoil and relentless motion. The Third has at its center a superbly conceived slow movement, a serene panorama constructed in a perfect arc. Deneve takes this music with seriousness and dignity, throwing into relief the cafe music that interrupts at the middle of the movement, and setting up an especially patient build-up to an incandescent climax. I must make mention of the concertmaster's beautiful solo contrubutions in the second and fourth movements: his mellow tone, restrained vibrato, and well-judged portamento are a throwback to the early 20th century. The ballet BACCHUS AND ARIADNE was composed around the same time as the symphony; avoiding any stereotypical "ancient" evocations (as, for example, Stravinsky's "classical Greek" ballets), it instead clothes the Greek myth in acrid harmonies and motor rhythms. A few very brief patches of ragged ensemble do not in any way detract from my hearty recommendation of this disc.