ALBERT ROUSSEL: Symphony No. 4, Op. 53; Rapsodie flamande (Flemish Rhapsody), Op. 56; Petite suite, Op. 39; Concert pour petit orchestre, Op. 34; Sinfonietta, Op. 52 – Royal Scottish National Orchestra /Stéphane Denève – Naxos 8.572135; 69:08 ****:
Albert Roussel (1869-1937) lost both parents by the time he was eight years old, and after studying music for a while in Paris he joined the French navy and so delayed studying music in earnest until 1894. After studying with Vincent D’Indy, by 1902 he was running the counterpoint class at the Schola Cantorum, and for the rest of his life exerted quite an influence on aspiring composers. His published works date from 1903 onwards, beginning with Impressionistic evolving to music inspired by the perfumed East and culminating with rhythmic neo-classicism.
On this, the fourth volume in Naxos’s excellent series of Roussel’s orchestral works, we have a cross-section of works from the mid-1920s onwards, all subscribing to an extent to his neo-classical muse. The Flemish Rhapsody is one of his last works, inspired by the composer’s Flemish ancestry, written in 1936, and premièred at the end of that year in Brussels by Erich Kleiber. The music evolves from quiet mysterious openings to the rumbustious, making use of folk melodies. The RSNO and Stéphane Denève point the performance nicely, colouring the folk inspiration aptly.
Stéphane Denève has a well-deserved reputation for attending to Roussel’s colours in earlier volumes in this series and he gets especially resonant results from the strings in these recordings, as well as piquant contributions from wind soloists. The three smaller scale works, the Petite Suite, Concert pour Petit Orchestre and the Sinfonietta, are entirely successful, their crystal-clear construction beautifully presented with tight rhythms and excellent ensemble. The same goes for the Fourth Symphony, Roussel’s most compact, a performance bursting with energy. While recordings by André Cluytens and Charles Munch, both still sounding very well, too, are not eclipsed, this finely-conceived rendition will not disappoint.
The recordings were made over an extended period and in two locations; the sound quality is generally excellent by CD standards. Only in the Symphony with its larger forces did I feel the location muddied the lower mid-range undoing a little of the excellent clarity of the playing. Otherwise, this bargain issue by Naxos, is just that, an excellent bargain.
— Peter Joelson