Roussel: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Roussel
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Radio France PO/Marek Janowski
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 62511 2 DDD
Roussel’s last two symphonies are the best known: No. 3, with its ear-splitting energy (think of Walton’s First), commissioned by Koussevitzky for the commemoration in 1930 of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first half-century; and the equally inspired Fourth, which hit Paris five years later.

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Ansermet and Munch each recorded both, though it was André Cluytens’s awesome EMI reading of No. 3 (still to be reissued) which supplied my first, tingling experience of this composer – by the end (Roussel died in 1937) he was Impressionist, Romantic and Modernist all rolled into one.

There is no need to question this superb new Janowski offering on RCA, even though his over-brisk handling of the Third (paired with No. 1, like Dutoit on Erato) comes a bit too close to the strutting exit of No. 4, rather than telegraphing the unnerving, subliminal sound-world into which the cocksure initial bars rapidly dissolve. (A key part of Roussel’s skill is the way statements suddenly feel like questions, and vice versa.)

Janowski elicits superb playing from his Radio France players, with countless subtle touches throughout in all departments: wind, strings, trumpets, horns.

But buy this disc no less for the lush post-Wagnerian discoveries to be made in Symphony No. 1 (1906): a Scriabin-like canvas of sumptuous Impressionism – veritable ‘forest music’, as its subtitle (‘Le poème de la forêt’) denotes. The Lento, ‘Soir d’été’, armed with a melting (though uncredited) violin solo, is a reincarnated Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

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Lend an ear, too, to the three-movement No. 2: more of a curio, with an almost Ivesian mix of styles. It fell flat at its 1922 premiere, so should be nicely placed to convert to a Nineties hit. Whatever you make of it, this fine, articulate orchestra sails through with flying colours. Riches indeed. Roderic Dunnett