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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Complete Piano Music - Vol. 1
Sonatine, Op.16 (1912) [12:45]
Le Marchand de sable qui passe - musique de scène, Op.13 (1908) [21:48]
Trois Pièces, Op.49 (1933) [8:36]
Prélude et Fugue, Op.46 (1934; 1932) [4:39]
Doute (1919) [4:06]
Petit Canon perpétuel (1912) [2:14]
L’Accueil des Muses (1920) [4:34]
Segovia, Op 29 (1925) [2:57]
Conte à la poupée (1904)
Jean-Pierre Armengaud (piano)
rec. Studio 4’33 Ivry sur Seine, 11-12 October 2012 (Sonatine), 6-7 September 2012 (Marchand), April 2006 Temple Saint-Marcel, Paris (rest)
NAXOS 8.573093 [64:14] 

Albert Roussel was originally destined for a seafaring career, but after a period of study with Julien Koszul - director of the Roubaix Conservatoire in northern France and, in fact, Henri Dutilleux’s grandfather - he eventually went to study with Vincent D’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. There he taught composition, numbering Erik Satie, Edgar Varèse and Paul Le Flem among his pupils.
 
Most serious students of the piano will certainly have heard of Roussel, and may even have played something of his during their formative years. His music has never attained the popularity of Debussy or Ravel since it tends to lack the sumptuous appeal of much of their writing. Yet Roussel was still an important French composer, even if critics have variously said that ‘he possessed every quality but that of spontaneous invention’, ‘remains almost famous’, or ‘walks the line between the memorable and the impossible to forget’.
 
Roussel was, by temperament a classicist, and while his early work was strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel’s Impressionism, he evolved a personal style more formal in design, with a strong rhythmic drive, and often characterized by contrapuntal textures. This, though, was not surprising given his rigorous Schola Cantorum training, with its emphasis on Palestrina and Bach. Equally, he was interested in jazz, which also found a place in his evolving musical style.
 
Given this background, anyone coming to Roussel’s music for the first time is certainly in for a revelation, but definitely one that will benefit from more than just the first playing. This first of three volumes of his complete piano music is a perfect introduction to this seemingly intriguing and nonetheless influential French composer. While the present compilation includes music written between 1904 and 1933, Naxos has wisely chosen not to follow a mere chronological track order. This very much succeeds in engaging the listener from the outset, while showing how the style changes and develops over the course of an hour or so.
 
The opening Sonatine, Op. 16 was written in 1912. Its two movements already give an indication of how Roussel’s music is to evolve - a more abstract form of writing, where the usual four movements of a fully-fledged sonata are here condensed to two. Frequent shifts in tempo characterise the second movement, which opens with an intimate slow section, but builds eventually to an effective and dazzling conclusion, where irregular rhythms are a prominent feature.
 
By contrast the second work - Le Marchand de sable qui passe - musique de scène (The Sandman) is a four-movement set of incidental music written in 1908 for a one-act verse-play by Georges Jean-Aubry. Previously recorded in its orchestral format (Naxos 8.570323), this is a world-premiere recording of Roussel’s piano version, but one where he skilfully transfers the original colours across, in music which is eminently tuneful.
 
The Trois Pièces, Op. 49 that follow, are from 1933, and demonstrate the essence of the composer’s last creative period - harmonically more astringent at times, and strongly rhythmic. The middle ‘Tempo di Valz’ has that essential lilt that seems to flow so freely from the pen of French composers, even without the almost mandatory accordion. The final piece of the set, with its lazy triplets, mingles jazz harmonies with rhythmic vivacity in a delightfully light confection.
 
The Prélude and Fugue in F minor is a composite work, the Prelude being the composer’s last work for piano, and involves a rhythmically terse ostinato-like movement with a fugue based on Bach’s name (using German notation: B flat - A - C - B natural), all topped off with a surprisingly perfunctory final cadence. 
Doute, with its constant falling minor seconds and shifting tonality is very much a musical representation of the word itself. The Petit Canon perpétuel, demonstrates, as César Franck does in the finale of his Violin Sonata, how a piece of canonic writing can transcend its quasi-mathematical conception - Roussel was, in fact, initially interested in mathematics.
 
L’Accueil des Muses was written as part of a tribute to the late Debussy, to which a number of composers also contributed, and while the music, which makes frequent use of the lower register, largely expresses Roussel’s grief, there is no sense of actual musical borrowing.
 
The penultimate track, Segovia, is a piano transcription of an original guitar piece dedicated to the Spanish legend, and which seems, in the middle section, to inhabit a similar sound-world as Ravel’s À la manière de Borodin, itself also cast as a waltz. 
The CD comes full circle with Conte à la poupée (1904), a gentle lullaby, once more in tripartite form, and with a simple canon as its central section.
 
While Jean-Pierre Armengaud has recorded the complete piano works of Roussel, Debussy, Satie and Edison Denisov, and written a biography of Satie for the French publisher Fayard, he still remains relatively little known except in his homeland.
 
Well-respected British artist, Eric Parkin has recorded a selection of Roussel’s piano music on Chandos (CHAN8887), and Italian pianist, Emanuele Torquati has brought out a 2-CD set of the composer’s complete piano music, Promenade sentimentale, on the budget-label, Brilliant Classics (94329).
 
However, while the projected three-series collection from Naxos will ultimately prove a little more expensive, there are still good reasons for preferring Armengaud’s recording.
 
The selection on Parkin’s single CD clearly provides a good all-round introduction to Roussel’s unique piano writing, while Torquati gets everything onto two CDs, but then with a lot to digest at one sitting.
 
Armengaud is very well recorded, with an excellent piano sound, highly-accomplished playing and idiomatic sense of style. It scores significantly as far as track selection and ordering go, complemented by comprehensive and informative sleeve-notes. As a ‘taster’ it’s ideal, and is a self-contained insight into Roussel’s pianism. Equally if it succeeds in whetting the appetite, then the final two volumes with much more of the same are surely not going to be too long arriving.
 
While you wouldn’t usually buy a CD for its cover, Naxos has aptly used a photo of the chalk cliffs at Étretat for the first volume. Roussel was always fascinated by the sea, and he was laid to rest in the cliff-top cemetery at Varengeville-sur-Mer, further along the Normandy coast.
 
Philip R Buttall  


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