About this Recording
8.573171 - ROUSSEL, A.: Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Armengaud)
English  French 

Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Piano Music • 2


Albert Roussel was born in Tourcoing in 1869. He only began to study music in earnest in 1894, after moving to Roubaix. He continued his musical education in Paris, studying piano, organ, harmony and counterpoint with Eugène Gigout, before entering the Schola Cantorum where, between 1898 and 1907, he studied composition, orchestration and the history of music under Vincent d’Indy.

The symphonic prelude Résurrection (1903), Roussel’s earliest orchestral work, is recorded here in the composer’s own piano reduction. It was inspired by the eponymous novel by Tolstoy, whose values of altruism and social generosity were undoubtedly shared by Roussel. The novel tells the story of a wealthy landowner who goes in search of the working-class woman he fell in love with, and then rejected, when he was a young man. She has now been unjustly sentenced to exile in Siberia. As he tries to help her, he becomes aware of human suffering and of the misery of both political and other prisoners. He hopes his repentance will right his past wrongs and that he will find new meaning in life by serving his fellow man.

Roussel’s choice of musical form does not follow a conventional model. Rather than attempting to mirror the events portrayed in the novel, it is the composer’s response to the emotions engendered by the literary work, with its tormented characters, torn apart by inner conflict. This is a prelude “after a reading of Tolstoy”, not a symphonic poem.

Paul Le Flem noted, “The influence of Franck is clear, as witness the quality of its developments and the use, at the end … of a chorale tune borrowed from the Easter liturgy.” This chorale is probably a stylised nod to the grand Russian Orthodox Easter service that takes place in Chapter XV of the novel.

Roussel’s composition faithfully reflects the symbolic trajectory of the novel, moving from darkness towards light. The slow introduction is in two parts, one anguished and sombre and characterised by its offbeats, the other more animated in nature, until the first hearing of the slower “Easter” theme in the bass register. The first subject of the main section is marked Très animé, and is notable for its tormented inflections. The following section, Modéré, is mournful and expressive, in a D minor stylistically reminiscent of Chausson, and is twice interrupted by a stark, chromatic motif with a diabolical rhythmic profile. These elements are used densely and to dramatic effect in a Très animé tempo until the music takes a gentler turn. The theme is heard again, now in C sharp minor and Modérément lent, in a seven-beat metre and with no interruptions this time from the chromatic motif. The music is gradually becoming more animated when the “Easter” theme reappears in the bass and proceeds to dominate the final two sections of the piece. The first of these is marked Modéré, its vibrant sonority building to ascending trills, the second, Modérément animé, is arranged in three staves throughout, its contrapuntal writing light and airy.

The three Rustiques were composed in 1904 and 1906 (No. 3), and reflect Roussel’s profound love of the natural world. There are two central musical ideas in Danse au bord de l’eau (Dance by the waterside). The first is in 5/8, its regular rhythm broken up by a triplet on the last two beats; the second is initially more four-square but becomes increasingly rhythmically capricious, featuring a wide variety of figurations and counterpoint, its form supple and malleable—this then leads into a new, Animé, secondary theme, in the left hand. More pastoral than aquatic in inspiration, this piece is notable for its rhythmical inventiveness, its numerous and subtle changes in tempo (no fewer than twenty-three in a 118-bar piece!) and the care taken in creating its sonorities, as demonstrated by its very precise pedal markings.

Promenade sentimentale en forêt (Sentimental stroll in the forest) reflects Roussel’s love of woodland—at around the same time, he was also working on his First Symphony “Le Poème de la forêt” (“The Poem of the Forest”, 1904–06) [Naxos 8.570323]. Here, a short introduction leads into the first subject, Doux et expressif, in A flat major, in a richly polyphonic atmosphere. A sombre transition (in 3/2) develops the motif from the introduction. The second subject, Moins lent, in E major, is densely wrapped in semiquaver sextuplets and triplets. Echoes of birdsong can then be heard in the varied return of the first subject.

Retour de fête (The fair’s return) is a portrait of a country fair with its crowds, noise and fun, and calls to mind Déodat de Séverac’s Vers le mas en fête. As noted by pianist Henri Gil-Marchex, “the themes are brief and without development, like snatches of song tunes”. The lively rhythm, parallel chords and arpeggiated figures, concise motifs and rapid contrasts, and writing for superimposed hands barely allow a new, lighthearted subject, played détaché, and a brief expressive interlude to emerge, before the crowds disperse at the end of the day.

Rather than turning to the sonata, like Dukas and D’Indy, Roussel took inspiration for what would be his largest-scale piano work—the Suite in F sharp minor—from the Baroque suite, a genre drawn on by Saint-Saëns, Debussy (Suite bergamasque, Pour le piano) and Samazeuilh (Suite en sol [GP669]) before him, and by Ravel a few years later (Le Tombeau de Couperin), though without retaining any of its stylistic characteristics.

The three-part Prélude recalls a tragic accident at sea and is imbued with the dark and grief-stricken feelings caused by the death of a sailor taken by a storm. Its lively and powerful central section is one of the earliest examples of the driving energy that would form the basis of Roussel’s rhythmical style in his mature works. In the lower register, a weighty motif above which we hear both isolated C sharps and a chordal theme, is repeated again and again, thirty times in all. The tempo accelerates. A second theme brimming with freshness is introduced to provide contrast, but does not reappear in the Prélude’s development section. When the motif returns, Plus animé and in virtuoso guise, the dynamic and impetuous central section takes off, built entirely on different metamorphoses of that opening motif which grows out of the bass. An arc-like structure is revealed when the music becomes calm again and the two themes return, in reverse order. Chausson’s Concert had already revived the sicilienne, with grace and subtlety—here Roussel accentuates its inward-looking nature, achieving his desired sound by marking the opening “très enveloppé”. The repetitive and somewhat insistent nature of the sicilienne is modified here by the use of delay, as the tempo switches between 6/8 and12/8. The first of three themes is “rêveur et pensif”, the second rather clearer and more straightforward. After a series of sophisticated chords, punctuated with resonances of rather Asiatic feel, the third unfolds entirely in 12/8, echoing the intimacy of the opening theme, but moving towards a highly varied recapitulation, in which the reappearance of the second theme provides the high point of the movement as a whole.

The Bourrée, with its rustic accents and 3/8 metre, is in three parts, with a very varied recapitulation. A resounding introduction based on a concise motif of ornamented chords leads into a whirling, sharply polarised theme. This piece takes its character, energy and strength from its driving rhythms and its continuum of sound. Contrast is provided by a more static middle section, in which an A pedal note is followed by two tightly knit chords—there is then a softer, more free-flowing passage, before a return to the previous pattern, this time with a C sharp pedal note.

The Ronde, joyful and impulsive, sets out a seven-bar theme that ends in a bruitiste effect of trills above semiquaver runs in the bass marked “confus”. Amid other sound effects created by shimmering figurations, arpeggios and rhythmically based dynamic impulses, further, secondary ideas emerge—some lyrical, others more naïve in style, à la française, while the main theme continues to undergo variation.

An unpublished student exercise, the three-part Fugue (1898) shows both Roussel’s fondness and his early talent for contrapuntal writing.

His Opus 1, Des heures passent… (Hours go by…, 1898), reflects the four years he spent studying with Gigout. Is there a fin-de-siècle air to these four movements, or do they simply express some of the poetry of the composer’s inner dreams? There are two contrasting halves to Graves et légères. The first is slow and melancholy, written in four parts, and has a lament-like chromatic motif—perhaps inspired by the composer ’s memories of being orphaned at a young age. The second, after a playful introduction, is built on two elements, one graceful and dancing, the other leggiero in detached notes and built on a formal pattern that varies the material (ABA’B’A’‘). Joyeuses follows a similar scheme (ABA’B’A).The first theme, assertive and lively, alternates with a supple, lyrical melody, somewhere between Chopin and Fauré in feel. Tragiques begins with an eight-bar introduction featuring chords that toll like a death knell and are answered by a lament. A static theme qualified by Marchex as “weary and dour” sounds at half-volume in A flat. The chromatic motif from Heures graves introduces the second subject, in E flat—a kind of march during which that same motif is heard a further three times in the left hand. An interlude in A, with a broad and songlike phrase in the left hand, leads to the return of the introductory chords, this time marked “una corda”, then back to the two themes, the second now truncated. The conclusion returns to the powerful initial chords, which then gradually fade away. Finally, with its widespread use of melodic imitation, Champêtres is based on fugal style. This playful piece is distinguished by the sophisticated and meticulous way in which it moves between staccato and legato articulations.

© 2015 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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