The music of Albert Roussel (1869-1937) isn't as popular today as it was between the Wars, when he was regarded by many as the greatest French composer after Ravel and Debussy. But thanks in large part to recordings like this, he's at least kept a foot in the door of the standard repertory. During his lifetime, Roussel was sometimes grouped with the avant-garde and sometimes with the neoclassicists, but in fact his style is completely individual, if not idiosyncratic. There's almost a Jekyll and Hyde character to the music. In Roussel's most representative scores, jagged lines are dressed in lush orchestrations; spiky, propulsive rhythms alternate with moments of inwardness and calm. Listening to Roussel for the first time can be a disorienting experience, for the music is constantly veering between aggressive dissonances and opulent melodies.
The greatest interpreter of Roussel's music will always be his close friend Charles Munch, whose recordings of the Symphonies Three and Four and the Suite Number Two from Bacchus and Ariane are incandescent and indispensable. Still, each of these pieces has been well served by other conductors, and I would have no reservations in recommending, say, Ansermet, Bernstein, and Boulez in the Symphony; and Ormandy, Markevitch, and Cluytens in the Suite. Of the (much fewer) recordings that include the less popular First Suite, the brilliantly played version by Jean Martinon, once available as a Musical Heritage Society release, is a delight from first to last.
Unfortunately, given the vagaries of the classical music business these days, several of these recordings aren't currently available. Happily, this new recording by Stephane Deneve and his Scottish orchestra is as good as any and can be safely recommended in their stead. Deneve's attacks aren't as fierce as either Munch or Boulez, but his graceful, athletic rhythms still generate the requisite thrust and power. In the more lyrical episodes, Deneve is more indulgent, luxuriating in the music's warmth and sensuality. Deneve also stresses the quirky, raucous humor, the sense of playfulness and surprise that makes these scores so much fun to listen to. In the end, Deneve does more than hold the disparate elements together in a completely natural way; he captures the joie-de-vivre at the heart of Roussel's genius.
Deneve is now in his second year as music
director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He clearly has schooled his
musicians well, for they sound idiomatically French throughout. They rise to the
challenge of the big climaxes and also provide a sense of atmosphere in the more
intimate episodes. The solo playing, especially by the winds, is terrific.
Roussel's bright, clashing hues and colors are well represented here. In
general, the sound too is excellent: a spacious soundstage with convincing bite
at the top and thunder on the bottom. Still, I sometimes found myself wishing
that the perspective were closer-up, for that would give the music even more
immediacy and impact. But of course, you can always just turn up the volume.
So here is a perfect introduction to the music of
Roussel, and an exciting alternative for collectors who have already taken the
leap. I certainly look forward to any future outings by these forces. I'm much
impressed by this one.