Not QUITE all of Roussel's chamber music is in this handy collection (more of that later), but thanks to Brilliant for making it available again at such a bargain price. (These discs were originally released in 1994 on OLYMPIA [DDD]).
Roussel wrote chamber music throughout his life, so his stylistic development can be followed on these discs. Opera 2, 6, and 11 are early works influenced by Debussy, Ravel D'Indy and Franck. Nevertheless, they are well-wrought, have an individual stamp, and are not just juvenilia.
In the Poemes de Ronsard, Op.26, a sinewy, dissonant and motoric Stravinskian influence begins to assert itself. However, there remain a harmonic sensuousness and a Ravel-like lyricism that never deserted Roussel. All of Roussel's mature works are permeated with contrapuntal interest, and possess textural clarity, formal integrity and concision, and high technical finish in the instrumental writing. In 1924, Roussel described the then current trends in neo-classicism--his remarks read as a self-portrait: "...the return to cleaner lines, more emphatic accents, more precise rhythm, a style more horizontal than vertical, a certain brutality sometimes in the means of expression, contrasting with the subtle elegance and the misty atmosphere of the preceding period, an attentive and sympathetic glance toward the robust frankness of Bach or Handel, in short...a return to the classic tradition..."
Although open to all musical currents of his era, Roussel was not a barometer of stylistic fads, nor a satellite of his contemporaries, and, despite great harmonic sophistication, remained a tonal composer. Again, Roussel's own description of his response to outside influences is as concise and direct as his compositional style: "The work of a great artist should be an example and not a model...a lesson valid only by the suggestions that it awakens in an independent mind."
Among the highlights herein are, of course, the relatively well-known String Quartet (one of the best of the 20th century), "Joueurs de flute" which has become a standard teaching piece, the Serenade for Flute, String Trio and Harp, and the String Trio, one of Roussel's greatest works.
This set ISN'T complete, but there doesn't seem to be a great deal missing. Toke Lund Christiansen's set of the complete music for flute included "Le Marchand de sable qui passe," which is a 20-minute suite of incidental music for flute, clarinet, horn, strings and harp. On the other hand, Brilliant scores over Christiansen by including the brief fourth movement of "Elpenor."
There's a bit of confusion surrounding the piece titled "Pipe," played here on the piccolo. Christiansen and Brilliant both include a piece with this title, but Christiansen's is over three minutes long, whereas Brilliant's is only 57 seconds! The similarities in the solo parts are apparent, but the piano accompaniments are radically different. Perhaps an expert in flute literature would be so kind as to enlighten me as to what is actually on offer here. Could the piece in Christiansen be "Aria No.1?"--both sets include "Aria No.2," but neither has "Aria No.1."
I especially like the packaging--a sturdy cardboard folder that first opens to reveal a printout of the contents, and then opens fully to allow access to all the discs at once, held firmly on plastic hubs, with the booklet neatly tucked away in a slot at the side.
All of the performers are Dutch, and all of them good. The sound is generally excellent, and, according to the notes, all recorded in the same venue. Despite this, I found the works involving the eponymous Schonberg Quartet too closely miked and a bit shrill--the treble control handles this nicely.
This is an indispensable purchase for admirers of this composer and highly recommended to lovers of Stravinsky, Ibert, Ravel, and Gallic neo-classicism.