April 08, 2010


Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Images; Pour le piano: Sarabande (orch. Ravel); Danse (orch. Ravel); Marche ecossaise sur un thème populaire; La plus que lente. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

Roussel: Symphony No. 4; Rapsodie flamande; Petite suite; Concert pour petit orchestra; Sinfonietta. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. Naxos. $8.99.

D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Symphony No. 3; Istar; Choral varié for Saxophone and Orchestra; Diptyque méditerranéen. Sigurđur Flosason, saxophone; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

     Anyone doubting the increasing internationalization of orchestral playing should listen to all three these recordings of important French music – one by a French orchestra with a German-born conductor, one with a French conductor leading a Scottish orchestra, and one featuring Icelandic musicians led by an Englishman. That all the works sound very fine indeed – albeit in different ways – shows how well orchestras worldwide can now handle music of all types, even while retaining areas to which they seem especially well adapted.

     The third of Jun Märkl’s CDs of the orchestral music of Debussy features one major work, Images, whose coloristic writing is brought forth especially successfully by the orchestra. This is a work of nuance, both musical and geographic – the first movement, Gigues, for example, is supposed to represent not merely England but Northumbria. The Spanish flavor of the second through fourth movements is heard through a French filter (as in Ravel’s very different Rapsodie espagnole), while the concluding Rondes de printemps speaks of France itself, with a pronounced Gallic accent. The four remaining works on the CD – two of them piano miniatures orchestrated not by Debussy but by Maurice Ravel – are lesser pieces, but each has its own charms, most notably La plus que lente, a very slow waltz that carries a suggestion of parody (and again, a very different work by Ravel, La Valse, comes to mind). Everything here is played idiomatically and with flair, the musical colors coming through vividly.

     Stéphane Denève has now completed his cycle of the four symphonies by Albert Roussel, continuing to manage to make the Royal Scottish National Orchestra seem thoroughly comfortable in music from across the English Channel. Roussel’s fourth and final symphony, first performed in 1934, is not particularly well known and does not represent a significant stylistic advance over his third. But its longest movement, marked Lento molto, is exceptional, written in polyphonic style but filled with wind color, intensity and expressive clarity. The Sinfonietta dates to just before this symphony and is a three-movement miniature, lasting only as long as the Lento molto of the larger work. It is mostly animated and pleasant rather than demanding. The Concert pour petit orchestra is also a compressed, carefully refined three-movement work. Rapsodie flamande (Flemish Rhapsody) is based on five 16th- and 17th-century songs and moves from solemn expression to liveliness, while Petite suite is a picturesque piece with some lovely and subtle woodwind writing. Denève has a very knowing way with Roussel’s music, fully exploring its emotional potential and bringing out the many details through which its charms emerge.

     Also built around a final symphony is the third volume of Rumon Gamba’s series of Vincent d’Indy’s orchestral works. D’Indy composed only three symphonies, the third being written in 1916-18, right in the middle of World War I, and featuring more dissonance and harmonic intensity than is usual in d’Indy’s music. In fact, some parts of the work are rather blaring – again, not an adjective usually applicable to d’Indy – but others are highly expressive, and there is some very lovely orchestral writing, such as a first-movement theme for cor anglais and solo viola and an effective trumpet solo in the slow movement. Later than the symphony is Diptyque méditerranéen (1926), the composer’s final orchestral work, a two-movement tone poem whose texture is reminiscent of Debussy and whose moods include mystery, warmth, melancholy and the clarity of night. The other two pieces on this CD are significantly earlier. Istar, first performed in 1897, is a complex set of variations that ends rather than starting with the basic theme – reflecting an ancient Assyrian story in which a goddess must leave an article of clothing at each of seven doors to the underworld, eventually entering her destination naked. The form of the work is clever, and its progress from complexity to simplicity reflects its source, but the whole has a somewhat detached feel to it despite its structural skill. As for Choral varié (1903), it makes full use of the flowing expressivity of the saxophone in a work that is at times Romantic, at times steeped in Impressionism – and that dies away into quiet moodiness. Gamba directs all the music with a sure hand and a fine feeling for d’Indy’s structural and melodic approach; the saxophone solo in Choral varié is beautifully played; and although the Iceland Symphony lacks some of the apparently inborn warmth of continental European orchestras, it offers fine balance among sections and evenness of tone that together provide a fine showcase for music filled with French eloquence.

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