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Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, July 2008

ROUSSEL, A.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (Orchestre de Paris, Eschenbach) ODE1092-2
ROUSSEL, A.: Bacchus et Ariane Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Symphony No. 2 (Orchestre de Paris, Eschenbach) ODE1065-2
ROUSSEL, A.: Symphony No. 3 / Le festin de l’araignee (Orchestre de Paris, Eschenbach) ODE1107-2

These three discs were issued over the period 2006–2008. They are grouped here for convenience and are only available separately.

Ondine defied predictability when they signed up the Orchestre de Paris and Christoph Eschenbach.

The First Symphony [ODE1092-2] groups what amount to four tone poems into Roussel’s most discursive and rhapsodic symphony. It is an early work with a sinuous impressionistic charm borne out of Ravel’s Grecian classical world—Daphnis and Chloe. While not as richly allusive and densely imaginative as Bax’s Nympholept and Spring Fire there is a kinship there as there is also with the even later Bantock Pagan Symphony and Ludolf Nielsen’s orchestral suites. In the first movement there is even a prediction of Sibelius’s Tapiola. The soundstage delivered by Ondine is wide and deep, naturalistic rather than striving for the spectacular—definitely not 1970s Decca. This is a big honest recording.

From a quarter century later comes the lithe and clean Fourth Symphony [ODE1092-2] which with its classical clarity has cast aside all the romantic apparatus so enthusiastically adopted in the First Symphony. This is springy and athletic music concerned with forward movement rather than dwelling on the vista…The symphony is dedicated to conductor Albert Wolff who premiered it with the Concert Pasdeloup on 19 October 1935.

The Third Symphony [ODE1107-2] was…the product of a composer in his sixties writing in his Normandy home at Vasterival. It was premiered by the Boston SO and Koussevitsky on 24 October 1930. The thud and thunder of the first movement contrasts with the pastoral melancholy meditation of the Adagio. This is followed by the fairground pleasantrie of the Vivace and the massive fountains of exultation of the last movement. No wonder the audience—whose applause forms part of the track—greeted this performance with such warmth. It’s the only live recording among the three discs.

Le Festin [ODE1107-2] is here given complete across 21 tracks. You are likely to enjoy this music—if you do already know it—if you already number Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye and Debussy’s Prélude a l’après midi d’un faune among your favourites. It has the magical elegance of the Ravel and the sultriness of the Debussy. Add to this the motorised thunder of Roussel’s last two symphonies. It is superbly recorded—listen to the whispering distant gold of the violins in The Ants Dance in a Circle (tr. 16). The instrumental howls in the Funeral of the Gadfly (tr. 24) are memorable. Also in the same movement how similar some of the writing is to Ravel’s dawn rustlings in Rapsodie espagnole. Those gentle rustles from the tam-tam suggest Ma Mère l’Oye. Eschenbach heartbreakingly captures the valedictory melancholy of Night falling on the deserted garden but brings out the solace too.

The third disc in this survey [ODE1065-2] gives us the two suites from Bacchus et Ariane rather than the whole ballet. Le Festin predated the Great War. Bacchus stands on the other side of the chasm. The language is distant from the First Symphony, Le Festin and Evocations. Impressionism and romance have been swept into a pestle and ground and hammered with a mortar. The product is less lavish, not as emotional—an excess of emotion or passionate allusion is seen by the composer as a trap. The composer has picked up influences from Stravinsky. I thought of Constant Lambert’s Tiresias and the earlier Pomona ballet at times. Strange how this classical pagan subject would have drawn music of such difference twenty years earlier.

The Second Symphony’s [ODE1065-2] opening lent is the longest movement and proceeds from the brooding oppression in the ascendant to exultant skirling fanfares at 8.00 and to golden upheavals at 13:00 onwards. It can sound like the wild optimism of the docks movement in Ibert’s Escales at 14:17 curving down into the sometimes equivocal brooding harmony of the opening. That harmonic ambiguity is redolent of the start of Bax’s Second Symphony though nowhere near as dense in detail. A bubbling insouciant Modéré of more than 8 minutes separates the 17 minute Lent from the final Très lent at almost 16 minutes.

There are some interesting choices here—not least that Eschenbach and Ondine chose to mix in the two famous ballets when if they had adopted the usual approach (à la Erato and Dutoit) we would have had two symphonies per CD on a pair of CDs.

The notes for all three discs are written by Roussel authority Damien Top.

This makes for an easy full price choice—poetically done in every aspect.

David Hurwitz, April 2006

There’s a sticker affixed to this disc in which Christoph Eschenbach lauds Roussel’s Second Symphony as the most rewarding discovery he has made in several years, or words to that effect. Music lovers might well reply: “So where have you been all this time?” It’s so typical of the classical music world today that major conductors will gladly perform horrendous pieces of crap by some modern composer du jour rather than spending some time with a neglected masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but praise for the fact that Eschenbach has decided to champion this work, surely one of the great symphonies of the 20th century, but now the question remains: will he do it in Philadelphia and elsewhere? Just how serious is his commitment to the case? Time alone will answer this last question, but one thing is certain: Eschenbach treats the piece with the respect it deserves and delivers a performance of high seriousness and high drama.

Like Martinon before him, in the only previous recording worth considering in comparison, Eschenbach takes his time, particularly in the delicious central scherzo, with its delicate pastoral scoring. Roussel’s harmony is rich, his orchestration often dense, and it needs a chance to register. It’s tempting to play the slow introductions to the first and third movements more quickly, but by giving the music the time it needs, the quick sections have all the more impact. In Eschenbach’s hands, Roussel’s string writing sometimes sounds like late Shostakovich, and it is just as moving. He’s always sensitive to those flecks of color from harp and celesta that pepper the score, and my only quibble both here and in Bacchus et Ariane is that the sonics, while perfectly fine as such, don’t have quite the depth and impact that Roussel’s orchestration suggests.

Bacchus always has been acclaimed a masterpiece, and its case needs no special pleading. Eschenbach really cuts loose in the quick music, driving Roussel’s bracing rhythms hard and whipping the music up to a thrilling climax in the concluding bacchanal. If you only know the familiar Second Suite (which is the complete second part of the ballet), you owe it to yourself to hear the whole thing. There’s strong competition here from Tortelier on Chandos, who has slightly better engineering. Both performances feature fine playing from their respective orchestras, but Tortelier’s coupling, The Spider’s Feast, while certainly apt, doesn’t match the Second Symphony in importance. This is one disc that all lovers of French music, and great symphonies, simply must have.

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