Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 3—Volume V, “Album pour les enfants adolescents.” Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Roussel: Symphony No. 1, “Le poème de la forêt”; Résurrection—Symphonic Prelude; Le marchand de sable qui passe—Incidental Music. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. Naxos. $8.99.
Gioachino Rossini’s name sounds as Italian as can be, and the composer was indeed Italian. But France and the French language played a huge role in his opera career – think only of Guillaume Tell, which brought that career to an end, and its immediate predecessor, Le comte Ory. Indeed, all of the last six Rossini operas were first performed in Paris. And after he summarily retired from opera composition in 1829, Rossini’s fate became ever more French, to the point that the variegated piano works of his final decade, collected as Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), are all French, composed in Paris and Rossini’s villa at Passy. This is not to say that there is anything particularly French about the music itself, apart from the works’ titles. This music transcends national boundaries and shows Rossini in some of his most creative moods – and some of his most lighthearted. Alessandro Marangoni is a fine pianist who is recording all Rossini’s piano music for Naxos, but unfortunately, his one shortcoming is in the area of lightness and humor; and that is becoming an increasing source of disappointment as the Rossini series continues (the new release is the third). The fifth volume of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse, whose title translates as “Album for Adolescent Children,” is a companion to the sixth, “Album for Smart Children,” most of which has already been released in an earlier Marangoni recording. Here, the pianist does a lovely job with legato and warmth, as in “Thème naïf et variations, idem…” And he brings out the contrasts in “L’innocence italienne: La candeur française” effectively. But he makes “Valse lugubre” a little too serious and “Prélude convulsif” too intense. And the two food-related pieces in this album – “Ouf! Les petit pois” and “Un sauté” – must be said to lack…well…spice. Marangoni is proving to be a better player of these “sins” than an interpreter of them: his virtuosity is impressive, but his involvement in the music’s nuances is somewhat less than complete.
Stéphane Denève, on the other hand, is thoroughly enmeshed in nuance in the work of Albert Roussel, to the point that he surprisingly obtains a rather French sound from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Indeed, nuance is much of what Denève must rely on in his latest Roussel CD, because a great deal of the music here is rather bland – sounding a bit, in some ways, like some of Delius. Unlike Rossini, Roussel wrote music with a strong French flavor, specifically the flavor of French Impressionism; and there is a certain Romantic naïveté to these works as well. Roussel’s Symphony No. 1 is a four-movement, four-season work that opens in winter and moves predictably through spring, summer and autumn, at the end of which it returns to its initial mood. There is much effective tone-painting here, and some of the brass touches are particularly nice, but the music as a whole sounds a great deal like much other Impressionist-era music (the symphony dates to 1904-6). Résurrection is even earlier (1903) and is supposed to be related to Tolstoy’s 1899 novel of the same name, which was controversial and much censored for its unceasing attack on society as no more than a means for the rich to oppress the poor. There is little of this theme in Roussel’s music, however; in fact, the work is rather pale. The 1908 music for the play Le marchand de sable qui passe (“The Sandman”), on the other hand, is not so much without color as it is monochromatic. It is not quite soporific, but it is languorous throughout, perhaps reflecting the theme of George Jean-Aubry’s play, but not being especially interesting to listen to from a strictly musical standpoint. Denève conducts all these works lovingly and with fine attention to detail, but this CD as a whole has a somewhat static feel to it, as if these early orchestral pieces by Roussel are firmly stuck in a time long past.