Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts Albert Roussel – Suite in F, Pour un fête de printemps, Évocations [BBC Philharmonic; Chandos]

4 of 5 stars

Suite in F, Op.33
Pour un fête de printemps, Op.22
Évocations, Op.15*

Kathryn Rudge (soprano), Alessandro Fisher (tenor) & François Le Roux (baritone)*

CBSO Chorus*

BBC Philharmonic
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Évocations recorded 7 April 2017 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; the rest on 8 September 2017 at MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: May 2018
Duration: 71 minutes

Yan Pascal Tortelier belatedly follows-up his disc of Roussel ballets (CHAN 9494) with this selection of orchestral works – presented in reverse order to survey the composer’s output as though from the wrong end of a telescope, of which one suspects he would have approved.

The Suite in F (1926) finds Roussel setting out a blueprint for the neoclassical idiom which (with modifications) remained consistent over his final decade of creativity. Tortelier has the measure of its succinct outer movements, with their effortless segueing between incisiveness and suavity, but feels a little reined-in during the ‘Sarabande’; its ominous aura resulting in a climax of unnerving power such as several younger composers, Prokofiev above all, took to heart. A sense of ‘otherness’ is seldom absent even from Roussel’s most abstract statements.

It is audibly present in Pour un fête de printemps (1920) as began life as the intended Scherzo of Roussel’s Second Symphony, before being issued as an independent symphonic poem that still encapsulates the probing ambivalence of its parent work. Tortelier certainly conveys the essence of this piece, whose subdued intensity is given focus by the symmetrical unfolding of its alternately pensive and agitated sections. What the composer termed as his “polymodality” serves to open-out the music’s harmonic range, yet without any risk to its organic evolution.

By far the most substantial work here, Évocations (1911) occupies a pivotal role in Roussel’s output – a triptych which is also a crucial step in this composer’s progress towards a genuine symphonic unity. Taking its cue from Debussy’s Nocturnes while anticipating such pieces as Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, its aura is one of unforced though not unclouded opulence. Tortelier proves as attentive to the undulating paragraphs of ‘The Gods in the Gloom of the Caves’ as he is to the animated unfolding of ‘The Pink City’ with its deft rhythmic motion.

Much the longest part, ‘On the Banks of the Sacred River’ sets lines by fifth-century Sanskrit author Kālidāsa (translated into French by Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi). Dominated by the chorus, there are also brief interjections from tenor and mezzo, then a lengthy evocation for baritone that leads to an ecstatic choral peroration and (too?) swift subsiding into calm. This can be difficult to make cohere, but Tortelier succeeds thanks to the excellence of response from the BBC Philharmonic along with the CBSO Chorus’s warmth and evenness of tone.

Both Kathryn Rudge and Alessandro Fisher shine during their brief cameos, though François Le Roux is not wholly comfortable in the rapid articulation of his extensive contribution. Évocations is not frequently recorded, but Zdeněk Košler’s 1978 account (Supraphon) retains much of its aural allure and is not outfaced by this new version. Captured live, the latter is afforded typically spacious and detailed Chandos reproduction, though SACD encoding might have brought even greater perspective to those dense and variegated textures that permeate Roussel’s score.

Both shorter pieces benefit from fine studio sound, with Roger Nichols’s succinctly informative note an added enhancement (the booklet includes sung texts and translations). Maybe Roussel’s four Symphonies from Tortelier and Chandos is now possible? Also a much-needed Honegger cycle? Let us hope so.

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