Roussel: Complete Symphonies / Deneve, Royal Scottish NO

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If you have yet to fall under the spell of this music, Naxos has now packaged the complete set at an even better price. Stéphane Denève's Roussel cycle for Naxos easily has been the finest ever recorded... Great sound, great music, great performances--a great series.

Stéphane Denève's Roussel cycle is shaping up to be the finest available--not that there's a lot of compelling competition. All of the symphonies are shockingly neglected, but the First might be the least-familiar of them all, God only knows why. It's a gorgeous, impressionistic piece with evocative titles (Forest in Winter, Renewal, Summer evening, Fauns and Dryads) and shimmering, atmospheric music that lives up to its expectations. Denève leads a thoroughly committed, even inspired performance, sensitive to Roussel's detailed scoring but also fluent, lively, and attentive to each movement's symphonic architecture. It's a wonderful performance, excellently played and recorded.

There's very little "minor" Roussel. Even his short works have a certain seriousness and substance. This is certainly true of Résurrection, a symphonic prelude after Tolstoy, while the four-movement suite from Le marchand de sable qui passe reveals Roussel's expert scoring for small ensemble (flute, horn, clarinet, harp, and strings). Really this is an essential acquisition for anyone who loves French music and the late Romantic school in general. Don't pass it up.

– David Hurwitz,

Has anyone ever noticed that William Walton lifted the climaxes of the first movement of his Partita for Orchestra bodily from the Prélude of Roussel's Suite in F? Granted, they aren't the two best-known works in the world, but the comparison really is striking. Like so much of Roussel's music, this marvelous work's neglect is a total mystery: it's an unalloyed delight that, at a scant quarter-hour, would make a perfect concert opener placed before a big concerto. The tone poem Pour une fête de printemps, title notwithstanding, is a darker work very much in the same style as the exactly contemporaneous Second Symphony, though it brightens up toward the end.

This brings us to the symphony, one of the shattering masterpieces of the 20th century literature and certainly the finest piece to come out of D'Indy's Schola Cantorum group of composers. There's no way it will ever be as popular as it deserves to be. Its dark opening, with its shadowy string textures, foreshadows late Shostakovich, and despite having some instantly memorable tunes and one of the most glorious scherzos in the entire universe for a central movement, the work commits the ultimate sin of ending quietly. Given its emotional and technical complexity, that's the kiss of death as far as programming is concerned.

Hot on the heels of Eschenbach's recent, excellent version, Stéphane Denève adds further laurels to his splendid Roussel cycle with this equally fine performance. While adopting very similar tempos throughout, he manages an interpretation that's quite different in character from Eschenbach's: lighter in texture (partly a function of the RSNO's bright basic timbre), and above all sharper in rhythm. You can hear this at the very outset, in the way Denève keeps up the Morse code-like motive (initially in the bassoons) right through the introduction. No one quite matches Martinon in the central scherzo, but this version comes very, very close, and in particular Denève, like Eschenbach, doesn't fall into the trap of playing the movement too quickly. And as always the RNSO horn section, so critical in the first and last movements, sounds glorious. Naxos' engineering is the most natural of all in terms of balance and perspective. Crank it up and wallow in some of the most marvelous symphonic music yet composed in France.

– David Hurwitz,

This disc recalls the heady days of Munch and Bernstein in this music. Stéphane Denève, music director of the RSNO since 2005, plays Roussel's music to the manner born (he was, of course, but you never know--remember Prêtre?). The first movement of the Third Symphony revels in its unbridled rhythmic thrust, while Denève wrings every drop of bittersweet poignancy from the slow movement, capping it off with the most intense and powerful climax you will ever hope to hear. The remainder of the symphony, ebullient and sparkling, with the finale emerging seamlessly from the quiet ending of the scherzo, caps a performance that's just about perfect.

Bacchus et Ariane--the two suites presented here constitute the entire ballet--has just as much fervor and brilliance. From the opening bars the orchestra plays like a pack of demons, and this makes the more melting and lyrical bits all the more moving. The opening of the Second Suite has that same feeling of deep nostalgia as does the slow movement of the symphony, and in the final Bacchanal Denève whips up an orchestral fury the likes of which we haven't heard in this piece since Munch. What makes the performance so special is that all of this excitement never compromises precision of execution, or that special sparkle and lightness of touch that we have come to regard as quintessentially French. This team looks set to become a major musical force, and a genuine star of the Naxos catalog. Keep it coming, please!

– David Hurwitz,

Stéphane Denève's Roussel cycle for Naxos easily has been the finest ever recorded, and this concluding disc fully lives up to expectations. The Fourth symphony explodes with rhythmic vigor in the outer movements and captures all of the bittersweet lyricism of the slow second movement. It's an exuberant, effortless performance of a work that probably will never receive the attention it deserves on account of its brevity (just a touch more than 20 minutes) and pungent (but never gratuitously harsh) harmonic vocabulary. The couplings are all worthwhile, and important.

The Flemish Rhapsody (Rapsodie flamande) is a virtually unknown but wonderfully tuneful, even catchy example of Roussel's punchy late style. You'll wonder where it's been. The three works for chamber orchestra (the Sinfonietta is for strings only) are all cut from the same cloth as the symphony, and they are just as well played. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sports some fine players, particularly the principal trumpet, and Denève lets them demonstrate their artistry without ever losing sight of the big formal picture in music that makes a point of its structural integrity. Great sound, great music, great performances--a great series.

– David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8504017

  • UPC: 747313401734

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Albert Roussel

  • Conductor: Stéphane Denève

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Scottish National Chorus