Classical Music: Double Play: Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane; Le festin de l'araignee BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Yan Pascal Tortelier (Chandos CHAN 9494)

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...
So this is how Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane begins. I don't believe I've ever heard the complete ballet before. I don't believe I've had the opportunity (this must be the first complete recording in at least 25 years). The Suite, yes, the Act 2 highlights, culminating as they do in Roussel's answer to the climactic Bacchanale from Ravel's Daphnis. Sweatier and brawnier than Ravel, mind, a more primary, a more blatant, a more overtly sensual dreamscape of ancient Greece. A mythological Riverdance springs to mind as Theseus and Ariadne and friends burst into the opening scene, their escape from the Minotaur celebrated in a racy neo-classical gallop, trombones bearing down on over-excitable strings in a determined bid to keep their feet on the ground. And then we're into the familiar Roussel stomp, a kind of fleshy neo-baroque ostinato (plenty more where that came from) which is how he likes to keep his music moving. And it does move and spring and frolic its way from Debussy's influence with all speed and vitality.

Repose, when it comes, is the more refreshing for being earned, as witness the exquisite music (spellbinding solo violin to the fore) which so memorably transports Ariadne to her big sleep at the close of Act 1. And after the big sleep, the big kiss, and an inspired melody (truly it has the ring of immortality about it) which Roussel has held patiently, prudently, in reserve until now. At the height of the Bacchanale, it roars out in the horns, triumphantly to signal the moment in which Bacchus crowns his Ariadne with stars.

Like everything else in this splendid performance (another triumph for the Tortelier/ BBC Philharmonic alliance), it's a moment that comes at you with all the stops out. Another opulent Chandos recording opens to it. After which the flora and fauna of the somewhat Debussy-bound Le festin de l'araignee (the earthy, forthright style of the later score is not even a glint in the eye) sounds decidedly anaemic. Debussy's fawn has mated with Ravel's goose and everything in the garden is, if not rosy, then felicitous. It's very much a score in need of its ballet, deftly scored to be deftly illustrative. Its passing pleasures pass. Leaving this listener to hit the start button for a rapid return to ancient Greece. ES

Look for Albert Roussel in the music dic-tionaries and standard textbooks and you will most likely find him in the pigeon-hole marked "French neo- classic". He doesn't really belong there, though. There are moments in Le festin de l'araignee ("The spider's banquet") that sound "French" enough: hints of Dukas, more than hints of Debussy, and in the haunting opening and closing music, something of the exquisite sadness of Ravel. Even here, though, Roussel mixes his colours quite differently; and his restraint in depicting the spider's death - its muted theatricality - is hard to parallel anywhere. It's worlds away from the powerfully suggestive restraint of Debussy's Jeux.

If Le festin sometimes sounds French without being classical, Bacchus et Ariane gestures towards neo-classicism while avoiding obvious French character traits: impressionism, Gallic folksiness - to find national elements you have to probe a lot deeper. The claim that the full ballet is Roussel's magnum opus feels a lot stronger after this magnificent recording. As an interpreter, Yan Pascal Tortelier's credentials are just about impeccable: he has the right touch in a wide range of French music, but he has also achieved fine things in Hindemith, and in some of Roussel's English contemporaries - broadly speaking, a mixture of those elements suits Bacchus et Ariane rather well. The BBC Philharmonic respond alertly and poetically - Tortelier is a fine technician as well as an outstanding communicator. And the Chandos production has done wonders: nothing studio-like about the sound, but atmosphere and clarity well-balanced. If there can be such a thing as an "Essential Albert Roussel" disc, this is it. SJ