This is a spectacular disc in a spectacular series, yet again demonstrating that the Naxos Roussel cycle with Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is surely the one to have. Indeed, Denève comes across as more or less the ideal interpreter of Roussel’s music, bringing out all the color and magic and vigor to be found. The two works on the present disc – written at roughly the same time – remain among the composer’s most popular, and in performances like these the disc is easily one of the best introductions to the composer’s enthralling sound world.
Though often described as “neo-classical” the soundworld of Roussel’s third symphony has little in common with, say, the dry neo-classicism of Stravinsky. The forms, and perhaps the shape and flow of the thematic material, are classical, but embedded in ferocious energy, exploding colors and a forward momentum that sometimes borders on the aggressive. In particular, the first movement is as energetic as any, whereas the second is passionate and profound – for a while, before it turns into light, wistful-tinged, very French, delightful reverie, though not without (after a while) some hints of darkness and a climax that is, at least in this performance, powerful as few. The scherzo is light and cheeky and delightful and the finale a deeply satisfying conclusion to a great work.
The ballet Bacchus et Ariane consists of two marvelously imaginative, colorful and inventive suites, with barely a second that is less than captivating. Many of the dances are relatively light-hearted and jaunty, but there is such emotional nuance, depth and variety (and, admittedly, an almost demonic undertone) that it doesn’t strike one as a particularly light work. In fact, the overall moods of the two suites are rather different – the first is light-filled, playful and wistful, while the second is almost daringly sensual, shimmering, glowing and wonderful.
As mentioned the performances are magnificent, whether the music is playful, sensual or brutal, and it is worth mentioning that RSNO features some superb soloists, especially in the symphony. The ballet is particularly notable for its sparkle, momentum and fiendish energy, which never threatens to jeopardize the textural clarity or precision of the performances. The recorded sound is first-rate as well, vivid, big and clear, with plenty of depth. In short, this is an absolute must, once again proving that the Naxos Roussel cycle will be at least on the level of, say, their celebrated cycle of Bax symphonies.