Bacchus et Ariane, Op.43 Suites 1 & 2
Symphony No.2, Op.23
Orchestre de Paris
Recorded in February 2005 in the Théâtre Mogador, Paris (Bacchus et Ariane) and July 2005 in the Conservatoire de Paris
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: August 2006
CD No: ONDINE ODE 1065-2
Duration: 78 minutes
It seems that Roussel’s Second Symphony has been something of a recent revelation for Christoph Eschenbach, who describes the work on his website as “one of the greatest musical discoveries I’ve made in years”. Its newly acquired value is evident from the care and attention brought by the conductor to this excellent new recording.
Few have championed the Roussel cause of late on disc, and outside of recordings of the punchy Third Symphony from Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, Roussel’s symphony cycle has received little coverage, with only Charles Dutoit and Marek Janowski completing the set of four. Eschenbach proves a powerful advocate of Symphony No.2, an extremely fine work.
Getting the structure across is a priority, as with three large movements the symphony could sprawl in the wrong hands. Not so here, for Eschenbach keeps an extremely tight grip on proceedings. The atmospheric opening pages of the first movement are edgy, a meditation disconcertingly punctuated by threatening strokes from lower strings and timpani. Roussel’s expansive textures are expertly controlled by the orchestra and captured in great clarity, so that when the faster music arrives in the form of a taut, sinewy melody on violins the accompanying counterpoint makes its mark also. The swirling figurations toward the climax (at around 14 minutes) generate plenty of thrust, leading to an impassioned statement of the main theme on strings.
The sultry second movement features rich orchestration but Eschenbach refuses to wallow, continuing his lucid account, bass strings particularly impressive as his cornerstone. A magical moment towards the end brings a luminous celesta solo. The music ebbs and flows in the finale, in what could almost be a seascape, and reaches a triumphant affirmation through the brass in the home key of B flat, before subsiding to resolution in the spirit of the opening, with mysterious lower strings accompanying an ambiguous horn melody. The final soft chord is beautifully done.
With the symphony cast as the main work, the disc opens with spirited accounts the two suites from Roussel’s ballet score, Bacchus et Ariane, which Eschenbach sharply observed and makes characterful. The vigorous introduction of the first suite leaps out of the speakers, Roussel’s trademark spiky half-dissonance firmly in focus, while the ‘Labyrinth’ dance dazzles in its Prokofiev-like brilliance. In the second suite the introduction features a non-credited but evocative violin solo, and when Bacchus dances alone it is to the sound of sprightly woodwinds in cross-rhythms of three against two.
It’s good to see a big-name conductor taking an interest in Roussel, at last, and with performances and sound of demonstration quality this disc offers the composer a welcome regeneration.