Symphony No. 1; Résurrection;
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Stephane Deneve' accounts of Roussel' symphonies have been praised for their 'energy, enthusiasm, and panache' and 'electrifying...ravishing...breathtaking' . Resurrection, Roussel' first orchestral work, is a delicate and mysterious piece inspired by
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With at least two more CDs of orchestral Roussel recorded and planned for release, this series looks set to become the most thoroughly recommendable set of Roussel's orchestral works. Hopefully Naxos and Deneve will continue with the music for chorus and orchestra, like Aeneas, Psalm 80, and Evocations, as well as with the piano concerto and cello concertino. Even his few operas, such as Padmavati, should not be out of the question, as Deneve conducts opera as well.
Roussel was the most important French symphonic composer of the interwar years, and his orchestral works deserve far more exposure on concert programs than they have received, at least outside of the French-speaking parts of Europe.
On recordings at least, Deneve and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have become his preeminent exponents, not withstanding Christoph Eschenbach's recent releases of the four symphonies on the Ondine label. Andre Cluytens's recordings (from decades ago) of many of the orchestral works will always be worth listening to, as will Ernest Ansermet's pioneering ones. Jean Martinon (Sym. No. 2), Charles Munch (Sym. Nos. 3 and 4), and Pierre Dervaux (Sym. No. 2) are also part of the indispensable pantheon. Charles Dutoit's and Marek Janowski's more recent recordings of the four symphonies are more than serviceable. But I challenge anyone to argue that any of these studio or even other live unreleased radio recordings of orchestral Roussel are more thoroughly idiomatic and convincing than Stephane Deneve's with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Roussel's Symphony No. 1, subtitled 'Le poeme de la Foret' (Poem of the Forest), is not programmatic, but follows the sequence of the seasons. It starts with Foret d'hiver (The Forest in Winter), then follows with Renouveau (Renewal), Soir d'ete (Summer Evening), and Faunes et dryades (Fauns and Dryads). The symphony was written in 1904-1906 and performed complete in 1908. It is almost never found on orchestral programs in the United States.
In the first two movements, urgency and pools of warmly brilliant stasis are combined to intoxicating effect. There is a sleek, warmly surging harmonic, lyric and rhythmic energy merged with a palpable sense of effervescent, atmospheric tension and release in instrumental balance and blend. Deneve and the orchestra's sense of detail, form, and structure are presented as a tight yet flexible whole.
The third movement, Summer Evening, is a sensuously evocative pictorial of harmonies, precisely calibrated yet thoroughly spontaneous sounding, with superbly placed instrumental balances, and sleek yet rapturously blended textures and timbres.
Fauns and Dryads, the fourth movement, is supple and infused with deeply invigorating lyricism, harmonies, and rhythms, all conveyed in a precise, playful, and jaunty style--just what the music needs to work its magic. And yes, this word--magic--is as apt for much of Roussel's music as anything more formal, such as a series of phases in his compositions, like the influence of Impressionism and then something later akin to Neo-Classicism.
Resurrection is a symphonic prelude that invokes Tolstoy's novel of that name. A supple series of harmonies are seamlessly integrated with an evocatively timed sense of coloristic tension and release. Deneve and the orchestra convey a sharp sense of architecture with a slowly cresting wave of slightly cool warmth and sly passion. A sense of poised poignancy and darkly swirling mystery in perfect sync. This work was composed in 1903 and first performed in 1904. It was Roussel's first-performed orchestral work.
The final work on the disc is exceedingly rare on recordings. To my knowledge only one with orchestral strings exists, released in 2000 on the Ades label and out of print. Le marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) was Roussel's first work for the theatre, and it was first performed in 1908. The incidental music included here was for the pantomime by the dramatist George Jean-Aubry. It was written for flute, clarinet, horn, harp and string quartet (some say string quintet-access to earlier published scores would be helpful), but orchestral strings can substitute for the strings, as on this disc. The music is warmly evocative of a somewhat innocent sensuality, like a supple, pointed brush, then a lush yet precise immersion in a painter's palette of velvet-tinged colors.
Even though everything on the disc was recorded under studio conditions (no audience present), at all times the playing is involved and evokes a striking sense of belief in the music. The strings are recorded with an ideal combination of clarity, atmosphere, and presence. Winds, brass, and percussion emerge as fully integrated, yet convey their presence in all the right ways at all the right moments, soloistic and character-laden yet never in the least bit harsh and brazen.
Entrancing, then stealthily enthralling and suffused with a limpid passion, the three works on this superb disc delight and slowly enrapture those who take a chance to listen to a master orchestrator convey his unique world of sound. Recommended to those with even the slightest sense of orchestral adventure.
Unlikely, this success, just at a glance. Yet? If any living French conductor should be a forceful Roussel advocate, why not younger Stephane Deneve? Oh wait. Our band is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra? Not exactly noted as one of the leading bands with a vital French musical tradition. If Sir Alexander Gibson laid strong foundations for the band's growth and excellence, surely Jarvi and other conductors have been able to build to fine musical effect. Still, this Roussel series is a bit of a surprise, showing how open the band's technical-musical excellence is to being lit up, from inside, by music of Roussel's refinement, strength, and challenge. Truly, so far in this Roussel series, the RSNO seems musically energized and deftly imbued with Stephane Deneve's brilliant leadership.
I'm still getting to know Roussel, so I find his harmony and style difficult to pigeonhole or characterize in musical history contexts. He's clearly indebted to French classical music generally. His orchestral sound is consistent with Les Six, yet somehow reaches far beyond them. He has a sense of line, edge, and tonal color that connotes Debussy and Ravel without really sounding all that much like either more famous composer. His sense of melody and harmony are just a tad quirky. New listeners are not going to leave the concert hall or this disc, humming Roussel melodies like Puccini. Roussel writes music that generates atmosphere above all, just clouds and wafts and surges and storms of atmosphere, actually. His tonal and musical cosmos seems at least as large as any other French composer; yet Roussel remains little known, especially in USA concerts and recordings.
Perhaps if Roussel had gained ad advocate in the heyday of Monteux or Koussevitzsky or Munch in Boston?
No matter. These Naxos discs are our chance to know Roussel freshly and vividly, regardless. The first symphony is supposed to be pictorial and all, but it really bursts its Late Romantic-Modern Impressionistic forebears, no bounds. Resurrection is the earliest orchestral piece to be premiered, once the composer believed he had found his new footing, thanks not least to rigorous studies at the Schola Cantorum under Vincent D'Indy. I can't think when I ever heard it played in a USA concert hall. Then the disc wraps up with a full band setting of the incidental music to a pantomime called, The Sandman. This is lighter fare no doubt; yet also worth hearing.
The first two discs in this series have already given us outstanding readings of the second and third symphonies, a complete Bacchus et Ariane ballet score, a tone poem like work dedicated to Spring, and the more familiar Suite in F. If other readings of Roussel have left you cold, this series may be your cure. If you already like Roussel, this series will be your metier and reward.
One hopes Naxos will find other occasions to keep Deneve at work with the RSNO. I would really, really, really like to hear them in the Cesar Franck symphony, plus the several tone poems. Super audio surround sound, too?
Strongly recommended. Five stars.