Roussel: Symphony No. 1

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Roussel
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Résurrection; Le marchand de sable qui passe – incidental music
PERFORMER: Royal Scottish NO/Stéphane Denève
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570323

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If you only know Roussel’s music from the clean-cut neo-classical textures of his works from the 1920s and ’30s, then this disc will be an ear-opener.

The sumptuously beautiful First Symphony is the headline work, being the highpoint of Roussel’s early style, when Debussy and Koechlin loomed large among his influences.

Subtitled Poems of the forest, it traverses the seasons from winter to autumn, with Franckian cyclic themes underpinning a beautiful depiction of the natural cycle. Stéphane Denève and the RSNO have already proven themselves to be fine advocates of Roussel’s music, and this is no exception, with plenty of colour and panache.

Occasionally a touch more velvety richness would be welcome, though they are not helped by the rather cool recording.  A little more fluidity in some passages, such as the repeating notes in the quixotic ‘Fauns and Dryads’ would also have been welcome.

Any cycle of Roussel’s symphonies will face strong competition from Eschenbach (Ondine) and Dutoit (Warner), but Denève’s unfolding series is turning out to be an extremely valuable, and much more ambitious, survey of the composer’s orchestral works.

Here, the First Symphony is partnered by two rarely heard early works.

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The charms of the elegant incidental music to Le marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) are hard to resist, acting as a perfect foil for the agitation of Roussel’s first acknowledged orchestral foray, Résurrection. The name is taken from Tolstoy’s novel, and Denève masterfully paces the gradual transformation from unease to calm. Christopher Dingle