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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Polyeucte (1891) [14:23]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Le Festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Feast) (1912-1913) [32:45]
L’Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) (1897) [11:48]
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire/Pascal Rophé
rec. 2018, La Cité des congrès, Nantes, France
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2432 SACD [59:46]

The French conductor Pascal Rophé first tweaked my ear with his 2006 coupling of the Jongen Symphonie Concertante and Saint-Saëns’s ‘Organ’ Symphony, Oliver Latry the distinguished soloist (Cypres). That was recorded with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège, who have since excelled themselves in John Neschling’s splendid Respighi series (BIS). As it happens, Rophé and the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire - of which he is music director - have also recorded a set of Dutilleux pieces for this Swedish label. Revisiting my review, I had misgivings about some of the music, the ballet Le Loup excepted; I had no qualms about the playing or sound, though. Their only other BIS album to date, a selection of Dusapin’s concertante works, was very well received on these pages (review).

I’m a sucker for lollipops - especially the French kind - so let’s start with Dukas’ popular ‘scherzo for orchestra’, L’Apprenti Sorcier. (I suspect its memorable visualisation in Walt Disney’s Fantasia has much to do with that.) A deftly scored little number that invites virtuoso playing, it rarely fails to please. Rophé and his band are commendably alert and colourful throughout. Fabian Frank’s warm, nicely detailed recording is excellent, the quieter passages particularly well caught. Given such a polished performance, it seemed churlish to grumble - on first audition at least - about a perceived lack of sparkle here. (More on that later.) In contrast, Dukas’ overture to Polyeucte, the tragedy by Pierre Corneiile (1606-1684), is rich, quasi-Wagnerian fare. Alas, the premiere, at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris, did not go down well. However, as hors d’oeuvres go, it’s filling, without being too much so. Good marks for presentation, too.

There are more recordings of Sorcier than you can wave a wand at, but for this and Polyeucte I’ve been listening to Yan Pascal Tortelier, with the Ulster Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic orchestras respectively, on a well-filled twofer from Chandos. This conductor is usually reliable when it comes to French rep, so I’d expect strong, idiomatic readings of both works. In fact, he delivers a rather bright, rather volatile Sorcier and a surprisingly low-fat Polyeucte, neither of which is to my taste. The big, unsubtle sound - the album was recorded in the 1980s/1990s - doesn’t help. Now this is where an A/B comparison is really useful, for it compelled me to reappraise Rophé’s Sorcier; what had once seemed to be far too reticent a reading now assumed a Gallic charm and elegance that’s surely closer to the composer’s intentions. What Tortelier does do though is play down the musical influences in both works, the overture especially; a pity, as I find such echoes both apt and interesting. Of course, this is only a single set of comparisons, but even then it’s yielded an unexpected - and very positive - result.

And now for the main course, Roussel’s Le Festin de l’Araignée, a one-Act pantomime ballet to a libretto by Gilbert de Voisins (1877-1939). It’s the cautionary tale of an artful arachnid assiduously stocking her larder for a feast. But, quelle horreur, she’s outwitted by one of her intended titbits - a praying mantis, no less - and becomes a meal herself. The work, premiered at the Théâtre des Arts, Paris on 3 April 1913, clearly owes much to Ravel and Debussy. The summer garden is a case in point, the languid flute solo reminiscent of the latter’s highly evocative Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. As before, Rophé and his players are on top form; most important, there’s an easeful loveliness here that speaks of real affection for the piece. Time and again I was struck by the sheer tastefulness of this performance, ‘The Mayfly hatches’ so delicately done. The sound is wonderfully transparent, too.

Given Rophé’s somewhat restrained approach to the Roussel, newcomers may be forgiven for thinking there’s more to the piece than this. And so it proves, for Stéphane Denève’s 2010 recording - the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at their animated and incisive best - reveals a heightened sense of drama and, most welcome, rather more insight (Naxos). And while the RSNO produce a fuller, weightier sound than their French counterparts, diaphony and detail are never lost. Also, Denève insists on bolder contrasts and rhythmic outlines, which, in turn, creates vital and more interesting characters. Not only that, his sensibly prominent timps and bass drum enhance the action and build tension in a way that Rophé’s more recessed instruments don’t. Denève’s fillers are two suites from Roussel’s opera-ballet, Padmâvatî. No question he and the RSNO are my first choice for the main work. That said, I wouldn’t want to be without the Tortelier/BBC Philharmonic recording, which blends the best elements of both rivals (Chandos). The coupling, a superb account of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane, could be a deal-breaker, though.

Rophé’s Dukas is understated, yet quietly rewarding, his Roussel fine spun, if a little short on contrast and character; splendid playing and sound.

Dan Morgan

Le Festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Feast)
Part I
1. Prélude - Un jardin (Prelude - A garden) [4:29]
2. Entrée des fourmis (Entrance of the ants) [3:10]
3. Entrée des bousiers (Entrance of the dung beetles) [1:02]
4. Danse du papillon (Dance of the butterfly) [4:14]
5. Danse de l’araignée (The spider dances) [1:52]
6. Entrée des vers de fruit (Entrance of the fruit worms) [0:50]
7. Entrée guerrière de deux mantes religieuses (Warlike entrance of two praying mantises) [2:19]
8. Danse de l’araignée (The spider dances) [0:33]
9. Eclosion de l’Éphémère (A Mayfly hatches) [1:47]
10. Danse de l’Éphémère (Dance of the Mayfly) [5:43]
Part II
11. Danse de l’Éphémère et des vers de fruit (Dance of the Mayfly and fruit worms) [2:04]
12. Agonie de l’araignée (The spider’s agony) [1:39]
13. Funérailles de l’ephémère (Funeral of the Mayfly) [2:58]

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