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ClassicsOnline Home » ROUSSEL, A.: Symphony No. 4 / Rapsodie Flamande / Petite Suite / Sinfonietta (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Deneve)
Following a period of soul-searching during the mid-1920s, and as his music gained success outside France during the 1930s, Albert Roussel took the rhythmic dynamism, thematic integration and formal lucidity of his Third Symphony (8.570245) to new heights with his less well-known Fourth, notable for its intensely wrought slow movement. The pungent Sinfonietta, the Flemish Rhapsody, which draws on popular songs of the Belgian provinces, the picturesque Petite Suite and the exquisite Concerto for small orchestra showcase the composer’s colourful orchestration and fastidious craftsmanship. Roussel’s Symphony No. 2 ( href="/catalogue/product.aspx?pid=8.570529">8.570529) gained The Gramophone Editor’s Choice.
By Malcolm Hayes
Albert Roussel (1869–1937):
Symphony No. 4 • Rapsodie flamande • Petite Suite • Concert pour petit orchestre • Sinfonietta
Although he remained an outsider in French music, Albert Roussel, born at Tourcoing on 5 April 1869, touched on almost all the stylisms of his era while
forging a highly personal idiom. An academically gifted student, he was sent by guardians (his father having died in 1870 and his mother in 1877) to Paris in 1884, where he pursued his musical studies at the Collège Stanislas. His early manhood was spent in the French Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and visited the Near East and China, experiences that left a considerable mark on his music. Resigning from the Navy in 1894, he settled in Paris to study music in earnest. It was a measure of his thoroughness that, having entered the Schola Cantorum to study with Vincent d’Indy in 1898, he was invited to take over the counterpoint class just four years later and went on to tutor a whole generation of composers, including such diverse figures as Eric Satie, Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martin .
Roussel destroyed almost all of his compositions from the 1890s, and only made his public début as a composer in 1903. Thereafter, he built up a select
catalogue (59 opuses) that falls into three main periods. From 1902–13, he absorbed Impressionistic tendencies found in such composers as Debussy and Ravel, evident in his First Symphony [Naxos 8.572243] and the choral work Evocations, before arriving at an idiom of great refinement and subtlety in his ballet Le festin de l’araignée. The years around the First World War were occupied with an ambitious opera-ballet Padmâvatî, whose Hindu-derived scenario is testament to the composer’s imagination and its complex harmonic language to the exploration of new musical territory
evident in those works written during 1918–25, notably the Second Symphony [Naxos 8.570259], the one-act opera La naissance de la lyre and the Second Violin Sonata.
A time of transition, this period of soul-searching was succeeded around 1925 by a mature idiom which, while related to the prevailing neo-classicism, is wholly
personal in its resourceful harmonies, 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, a setting of Psalm 80 and chamber works including a String Quartet and String Trio. This period coincided with growing success outside France, notably the Unites States to which he made a triumphal visit in 1930, but failing health had begun to take its toll. 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”.
Composed in 1934 and given its première in Paris on 19 October the next year conducted by Albert Wolff, the Fourth Symphony continues the line of
thinking defined by its predecessor [Naxos 8.570245], while taking thematic integration and formal lucidity to
new heights. These, along with a more oblique expressive profile, have accorded it less popularity.
The first movement opens with an introduction with solo woodwind heard against divided strings and which has an austere beauty. The main portion starts with a
lively theme, brass to the fore, contrasted with a tender melody for woodwind and strings. A compact and resourceful development ensues, the reprise being
altered to highlight different aspects of the orchestration, before the coda wraps up proceedings in a no-nonsense manner. The slow movement, Roussel’s greatest, unfolds in waves of fastidiously wrought polyphony, woodwind bringing colour and clarity to the texture. An initial climax sees the entry of the brass, woodwind and lower strings increasing intensity through to the main climax which brings something of the animated mood from the previous movement. This is dispelled, though not before one last upsurge brings a return to the mood at the outset and a close of distanced serenity. The scherzo begins with darting gestures from woodwind and strings, brass adding their edge to music whose motivic transformation is as intensive as its rhythmic drive. The finale opens with a dance-like theme whose dexterity is thrown into relief by the more forceful manner that soon emerges. The alternation of these related aspects gives this music impetus as it cavorts through a sonata-rondo format on the way to a conclusion typical of Roussel in its affirmation and decisiveness.
Composed in 1936 and given its première on 12 December by Erich Kleiber in Brussels, Rapsodie flamande is Roussel’s belated homage to his Flemish ancestry. It deploys five songs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all taken from Ernest Closson’s collection Popular Songs of the Belgian Provinces. Opening in a sombre manner, the piece soon takes on a more animated gait that brings several lively melodic ideas in its wake, leading to a robust climax with brass to the fore, then slowing into a tranquil section whose plaintive melody is discussed by woodwind and strings. This gives way to livelier music and a forceful climax, ending the work in a determined yet (given the minor key) ambivalent mood.
The other pieces are all representative of Roussel’s later work in their compact dimension, economical orchestration and three movement (fast-slow-fast) form. Composed in 1929 and first performed on 11 April by Walter Straram in Paris, the Petite Suite is the most picturesque. The Aubade is typical in its rhythmic élan and highlighting of woodwind, as is its subtle transformation of motifs. A sudden half-close prepares for the Pastorale, among Roussel’s most fetching in its wistful woodwind writing and gently undulating motion. An ambiguous mood is sounded by brass but the initial music, with clarinet and flute solos, has the last word. The Mascarade opens in lively manner yet, as befits its title, there is a hint of knavery on the way to a tellingly understated close.
Two years earlier, on 5 May 1927, Straram had given the première in Paris of the Concert pour petit orchestre, written immediately after the Suite in F [Naxos 8.570259] to which it forms a lesser known though more refined counterpart. The first movement pivots between two equally lively themes, contrasting in rhythmic emphasis, before a harmonically oblique ending. The slow movement emphasizes the concerto grosso principle evident throughout and features some of its composer’s most fastidious scoring, notably the long-held woodwind chords that see the piece through to a remote and almost somnolent conclusion. The finale breaks abruptly with this mood in music whose coursing energy admits its own share of harmonic ambiguity, though without the final deft resolution ever being in question.
Composed in 1934, immediately before the Fourth Symphony, Roussel’s Sinfonietta had its première on 19 November with Jean Evrard and takes formal economy to something near its limits, without the music ever becoming arid. The first movement is a perfectly wrought sonata form in miniature, its animated and expressive themes resourcefully developed and reprised within the compact time-frame. Although the slow movement here is no longer than those either side, its sustained opening and the soulful writing that ensues have an elegiac intensity out of all proportion to its length. It builds to a climax, at the apex of which the finale begins in sprightly fashion. A gentler theme provides contrast, then the initial mood resumes through to the lively close.
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