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8.570529 - ROUSSEL, A.: Symphony No. 2 / Pour une fete de printemps / Suite in F Major (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Deneve)
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Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Symphony No. 2 • Pour une fête de printemps • Suite in F


A perennial outsider in French music, Albert Roussel, born at Tourcoing on 5 April 1869, touched on almost all the stylisms of his era on the way to forging a personal idiom. An academically gifted student, he was sent by guardians to Paris in 1884, where he pursued his musical studies at the Collège Stanislas. His early manhood was spent in the French Navy, in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant and visited the Near East and China. Resigning from the Navy in 1894, he settled in Paris to study music in earnest. It was a measure of his thoroughness that, entering the Schola Cantorum to study with Vincent d’Indy in 1898, he was invited to take over the counterpoint class four years later and was the tutor of a whole generation of composers, including such diverse figures as Eric Satie, Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů.

Roussel destroyed almost all his compositions from the 1890s, and only made his public début as a composer in 1903. Thereafter, he built up a select but significant catalogue that falls into three main periods. From 1902 to 1913 he absorbed those Impressionistic tendencies found in Debussy and Ravel, evident in his First Symphony and the choral work Evocations, arriving at an idiom of great refinement and subtlety in his ballet Le festin d’araignée. The years around the First World War were occupied with an ambitious opera-ballet Padmâvatî, its Hindu-derived scenario testament to Roussel’s questing imagination and its harmonic complexity to his desire to explore new musical territory. That territory was mined during 1918- 25, notably in the Second Symphony, the one-act opera La naissance de la lyre and also the Second Violin Sonata.

This period of soul-searching was succeeded around 1925 by a fully mature idiom which, related to the prevailing European neo-classicism, is inherently personal in its resourceful harmony, intricate counterpoint and energetic rhythms. Notable works include the comic opera Le testament de la tante Caroline, the ballets Bacchus et Ariane [Naxos 8.570245] and Aeneas, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, Psalm 80, and chamber works including a String Quartet and String Trio. This period also coincided with success outside France, notably the United States where he made a triumphal visit in 1930, but failing health took its toll on travelling and then composing. Following a heart attack, he died at Royan on 23 August 1937 and was buried overlooking the sea: a composer of music ‘willed and realised for its own sake’.

The three works included here outline the transitional phase in which Roussel’s mature idiom took shape. Most important of these is the Second Symphony (1919-21), whose lengthy gestation is partly accounted for by illness, but also by the emotional deepening of his musical language. Its première, in Paris on 4 March 1922, was a muted success, and though the work was championed by Serge Koussevitzky, a staunch advocate of the composer, it never established itself in the symphonic repertoire: understandably, perhaps, given its densely intricate orchestration and its wide though elusive range of expression.

The first movement opens with brooding gestures in lower woodwind, joined by strings and cor anglais in a sombre, even ominous musical landscape. The music unfolds in bleak polyphony, tension gradually increasing as exchanges between upper and lower strings become rhythmically animated. Around a third of the way through, a dancing motion takes hold, propelling the music into a lively though, given its highly chromatic material, hardly affirmative manner. A brief climax is reached, whereupon the initial gestures reassert themselves and the music returns to its initial introspection. Again the earlier momentum is regained, this time extended before the movement moves towards a close that now revisits the initial music in luminous contentment.

The second movement is poised between scherzo and intermezzo. Over pirouetting woodwind, strings unfold an expressive theme that soon takes on greater élan as aspects of it migrate to other parts of the orchestra, with a lively animation underpinning the music as a whole. Half-way through, the motion runs down and an elegiac music on strings, horns and harp, itself a variant of the initial string theme, alludes to the previous movement. This builds to an intense climax, from which the opening music returns insouciantly on woodwind and strings, now propelling the movement to its energetic close.

The third movement starts not unlike the first, with fugitive gestures on woodwind and brass over undulating lower strings. A noble polyphony unfolds across the strings, gradually taking on a greater purpose as it builds in stages, urged on by angular gestures from brass and percussion. Elements from preceding movements are brought into play then, after a brief interlude in the guise of a wistful discourse for woodwind, the music launches headlong towards the main climax, combining most of the work’s salient motifs in densely-wrought textures. There follows a plaintive postlude for clarinet and strings, which brings about the close by returning to the musing introspection in which the work began, now with a definite sense of tonal closure.

While at work on the symphony, Roussel completed a symphonic poem that might be thought of as preparation for the larger work. Given its première by Gabriel Pierné in Paris on 29 October 1921, Pour une fête de printemps opens with a plaintive melody for solo woodwind over luminous string textures. At length, an impulsive manner takes hold and the music heads into more animated territory, aptly conveying the image evoked by the title. A solo violin injects appropriate languor, and the initial music is recalled as the piece builds to a brass-dominated climax from which the earlier momentum is regained. This continues for some while, finally losing impetus as the opening woodwind melody returns and the work closes in a mood of wistful serenity.

With the Suite in F, composed in 1926 and first performed by Koussevitzky in Boston on 21st January the following year, Roussel arrived at his mature idiom; taut and economical in design, its three movements recall the concertos of the Baroque era, though its abrasive harmonies, motoric rhythms and pungent humour evince a distinctly ‘contemporary’ feel.

The Prélude opens with rumbustious music that draws the whole orchestra into play. Textures are full but active, as are the frequent climaxes that never impede the onward flow. Although there are no strongly contrasted themes, the outline of sonata-form is enough to ensure a dynamic forward motion, capped by a brief but resolute coda. The Sarabande is loosely modeled on the Renaissance dance measure, its underlying rhythm acting as continuity for a succession of ideas, mainly on woodwind, that pass across the texture without leaving a distinct impression. A central climax focuses the latent harmonic tension, but this is short-lived as the piece dies down into the sombre shadows from which it arose. The Gigue provides a perfect response with its intensely alive demeanour and its scintillating textures, the melodic ideas displaying an almost rustic vigour that complements the sophisticated instrumentation. Here too the dance motion is more keenly maintained, urging the music to a close that functions as an apotheosis to the overall work in its sheer energetic buoyancy.

Richard Whitehouse

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