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CD Review

Albert Roussel


  • Symphony #1 "Le Poeme de la Foret" Op. 7 (1908)
  • Symphony #2 Op. 23 (1921)
  • Symphony #3 Op. 42 (1930)
  • Symphony #4 Op. 53 (1935)
Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France/Marek Janowski
RCA 09026-62511-2 2CDs
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Making this set was probably a labor of love for orchestra and conductor. It is also a tribute to RCA forbeing willing to record something other than the standard repertoire. So, everyone was playing music they wanted to record, love to play and that comes through from the first and through repeated listenings.

The two-disc set comes with some good insert notes by Lucy Cross, including some discussion of each symphony and relevant biographical details. In the begining she notes of Roussel, "his music is not universally accessible. His pieces do not fit neatly into any familiar stylistic context, and it is difficult to trace the progress of his artistic evolution when comparing his works to one another." Frankly, I am not 100% certain what she means by "universally accessible" because it certainly grabs my attention, but then this could be because I came to Roussel via Martinů.

Roussel studied music with d'Indy, but the chief influence to be heard in his First Symphony is Debussy. In fact, there were moments where I was reminded of La Mer. At one point I felt that if Debussy had written a symphony it might well sound like this. The symphony is full of beautiful moments and rewards repeated hearings. On the other hand, it is not typical Roussel as heard in the later symphonies.

Symphony number two is from a different world and composer. The first was composed in 1906, the latter in 1921. By this time Roussel and the world had been through the First World War. As Ms. Cross put it, you will not find much of an evolutionary development from the First Symphony (unless, of course, you want to introduce punctuated equilibrium, à la Gould).

The symphony's opening is enigmatic, not unlike Shostakovich's 11th or a Sibelius Symphony. There is still a touch of Debussy, but it is more sinister, befitting the intervening circumstances. A bassoon solo creeps in at some petty pace, like dawn setting over a river. Then an ominous chord from the double bass and timpani intrudes and you segue into drifting over the Styx, mists sleeping over it. Slowly, a melody emerges as a march, then it gathers tension and segues into a tarantella, screwing the tension taut until from the orchestral fabric a brass fanfare leaps, jubilant like some birth of affirmation. This dance develops into an absurd kind of bubbling. The movement returns to its somber origins and repeats the process, with variations, until another burst from the brass and then it settles into an almost pastoral close. The second movement is generally more optimistic. It opens energetically, flitting about like a bee seeking pollen. An occasional trumpet pizzicato (can't find a better word) reminds me of d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air. The movement's finish is saucy and serene at the same time. The final movement flows from the second with a chill, returning to a sinister atmosphere calling to mind Sibelius again. The coda is absolutely arresting. The whole symphony has a mathematical, classical aspect to it which, wedded to the romantic, produces a world that is absurd, much like the new one. Throughout the symphony, Roussel regularly screws the tension so taut you think it will burst and when it does it is like an orgasm.

"The Third Symphony has opening bars which, like Beethoven's Fifth (if I may hazard such a comparison) command that you shall listen….The symphony's rhythmic vitality is nicely balanced by a gentle and slightly quirky lyricism…" (1). What I find so fascinating about this symphony is resistance to classification. Yes, this is neoclassicism, but that is not really accurate. Even in the midst of the symphony's adagio, jollity steals in in a silly, giddy sort-of way. The first movement has already been well described by Mr. Hoornaert in the quote above. It is also full of "stamping rhythms" (2) that are a fingerprint of the later compositions of Roussel. After the adagio (which it is) the third and fourth movements return to the absurd nature of the first movement. Then they segue into one another so smoothly that ithaunting how the difference creeps up on you. I love the finale's coda: three orchestral raspberries. Looking over my notes, perhaps an apt description would be Mozart à la Picasso."

(1) Ed Hoornaert
(2) Martin Bernheimer: Quoted on the same page and site as in #1.

The Fourth Symphony of Roussel is more of an enigma to me. After several listenings I cannot say that I appreciate it as I do the others. It does not seem to have the coherence of the Second and Third Symphony. It is more episodic, ideas seem to appear rather than emerge. Still, I will offer the comments of Mr. Hoornaert as he hears the Fourth.

The Fourth Symphony is unusual in the weight given to the slow second movement, which is two-and-a-half minutes longer than the last two movements combined…The pounding rhythms are still there, although muted somewhat in comparison with the powerful Third Symphony. Nonetheless, Breugelesque rhythms break out in all but the slow movement. (Ed Hoornaert

I have not enjoyed listening like this in some time. All of these works deserve to be much better known and programmed than they are. The orchestra and conductor seem well inside the music. The recording is excellent. I did some comparison with the Erato recording of the last two symphonies with Charles Munch conducting (nla). The two interpretations are very similar. The added details available thanks to more recent recording technology means that you will hear even more in this recording than in Munch's(and I do like his). Strongly recommended.

Post script: I strongly suggest you check out Mr. Hoornaert's Roussel pages. They are delightfully presented with color pictures and even include points where you can click on to hear certain passages of music. Nice biographical details are on one site and there are several others devoted to discussion of several of Roussel's works.

Post-post Script: About a week after having written the above. In th back of my mind it kept niggling at me that maybe Roussel's 4th Symphony is better than what I was hearing. While it may be true that a piece of music is always better than any performance, it is also true that a piece of music is always only as good as its last performance. I pulled out my CD copy of Charles Munch performing the 3rd and 4th (Erato 2292-45687 nla) and listened to the 4th. The opening of the symphony grabbed my attention, unlike in Janowski's recording. Then, as I listened I went back and re-listened and re-listened to passages. I realized that after the gripping, eerie opening on strings, the oboe introduces a lament in an odd melody: du du-dah. This same melody is taken up again, a few moments later, with what sounds like, odd as it may seem, a muted, jazz-like trumpet lament on the same theme. Then, as I listened to the adagio like second movement I realized this opening lament was being introduced again-and-again in variations; like some fugue. The remaining two movements continue the theme-and-variations of this melody, making the whole symphony like some giant fugue.

How did this change in perception happen? Frankly, it is a gestalt in the butterfly sense from physics. Munch sometimes changes the whole by changing the orchestral relief and brining to the fore a different instrument. At other times it is just that the instrumental player add something to the playing of the notes, as in the first movement when that 'muted trumpet' haunts in, unlike Janowski's. Finally, in some cases whole passages are given a different 'accent' as in countless examples throughout. In Munch's hands the symphony acquires a coherence I did not hear in Janowski's version. The bottom line is that Munch convinces me that Roussel's 4th is also great. Too bad it is no longer available. [Herewith the writer of this essay snickers, 'Yeah, he-he, and I do have a copy! Hee-hee.']

Post script to the post-post script: about an hour later. I have not read the novel nor seen the movie, The Incredible Lightness of Being. For some reason, however, as I listen to the fourth movement of Roussel's Fourth, this phrase comes to mind. Still a fugue.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II