15 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Albert Roussel – PIANO MUSIC, Volume 1 (Jean-Pierre Armengaud; NAXOS 8.573093)

Albert Roussel - PIANO MUSIC, Volume 1 (NAXOS 8.573093)

ALBERT ROUSSEL (1869 – 1937): Piano Music, Volume 1—Sonatine, Op. 16 (1912); Le Marchand de sable qui passe, Op. 13 (musique de scène, 1908); Trois Pièces, Op. 49 (1933); Prélude et Fugue, Op. 46 (1934 & 1932); Doute (1919); Petit Canon perpétuel (1912); L’Accueil des Muses (1920); Segovia, Op. 29 (1925); Conte à la poupée (1904); Jean-Pierre Armengaud, piano [Recorded at Studio 4’33 Pierre Malbos, Ivry-sur-Seine, France, 6 – 7 September and 11 – 12 October 2012; NAXOS 8.573093; 1CD, 64:14; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

While many Classical Music record labels pursue ‘safe’ releases featuring standard repertory and commercially lucrative performers, the insightful minds responsible for decisions about future projects on the NAXOS label peruse the discographies of composers of all levels of significance and, where they find a need, seek to fill it.  From operas and oratorios by forgotten composers to forgotten works by famous composers, NAXOS recordings have enabled listeners to explore musical byways that might otherwise have remained uncharted.  The piano music of French composer Albert Roussel is hardly a road not taken, so to speak, but many listeners who are familiar with Roussel’s Symphonies and chamber music may well have never encountered his music for piano, on disc or in the recital hall.  This first volume in NAXOS’s collection of Roussel’s complete compositions for solo piano reveals music that deserves the attention of an intelligent pianist with an authentically French style of playing, and this disc entrusts Roussel’s adventurous, uniquely melodious music to no less a light in the firmament of French pianism than Jean-Pierre Armengaud.

In contrast to Wunderkinder like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Roussel devoted himself to music relatively late in life, having first studied mathematics and spent several years at sea, including a stint on a frigate called the Iphigénie—an auspicious assignment for a future composer in the French tradition.  It was not until 1894, when he was twenty-five, that Roussel began serious studies of music: he would continue to pursue musical tuition until 1908, studying for a time at the Schola Cantorum of Paris with Vincent d’Indy, one of the must influential teachers—and, among 21st-Century audiences, insufficiently respected composers—in fin-de-siècle France.  Perhaps influenced by d’Indy’s interests in music of the past, Roussel’s compositional style ultimately blended healthy doses of Debussy-esque Impressionism with a strong current of Neoclassicism.  With occasional performances of his four Symphonies and a small body of chamber music, along with infrequent espousal by singers such as Rita Gorr and Marilyn Horne of his opera Padmâvatî, Roussel’s music is consigned to a prestigious but unfortunate place just beyond the boundaries of acclaim and popularity.  If these works struggle for the attention that they deserve, Roussel’s music for solo piano lags even further behind.

Offering music written in the three decades between 1904 and 1934, this disc spans virtually Roussel’s entire compositional career.  Conte à la poupée (A Doll’s Tale) from 1904, the earliest piece on this recording, is a tri-part lullaby written for an album compiled by the Schola Cantorum: the subtle singing quality of Mr. Armengaud’s playing makes a wonderfully tranquil effect.  Roussel composed his incidental music for the play Le Marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) in 1908 for the ensemble of string quartet, clarinet, oboe, flute, horn, and harp, in which scoring it was published as his Opus 13.  One of Roussel’s most hypnotically Impressionistic works, the music is here performed in its version for piano.  Mr. Armengaud lends the magic of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque to Roussel’s music, especially in the ethereal harmonies and chromatics of the final movement.  Chromaticism is also central to the development of the first movement, and Mr. Armengaud places each harmony with unerring timing and rhythmic precision.  The lyrical inner movements, both touched by suggestions of wistfulness and regret, are beautifully played, the strength of Mr. Armengaud’s left hand highlighting the depths of Roussel’s invention.

The Petit Canon perpétuel dates from the spring of 1912 and finds Roussel in full command of the employment of subjects and countersubjects after the manner of the Baroque masters whose music he likely studied under d’Indy’s tutelage.  Mr. Armengaud’s facility with octaves serves the Petit Canon well, and his rhythmic vitality provides precisely the energy needed to realize Roussel’s complicated figurations with brilliance.  Composed in the summer of 1912, the Opus 16 Sonatine is the most substantial of Roussel’s early works for the piano.  Condensing the traditional four-movement sonata form into a free-flowing two-movement format that ushered in a new style of composition, Roussel fused Beethovenian power with characteristic French grace.  An acknowledged authority on the piano music of both Debussy and Satie, Mr. Armengaud approaches the Sonatine with precisely the combination of virtuosity and finesse required to realize the cleverness of Roussel’s writing.  Perhaps intentionally evocative of the horrors of World War I and the uncertainty of its aftermath, Doute (Doubt) is an unsettling work that Mr. Armengaud plays with great sensitivity.  L’Accueil des Muses (The Muses’ Welcome) was composed in 1920 in memory of Debussy, and Mr. Armengaud’s playing wrings all of the muted sadness from Roussel’s melodic lines.  Originally composed for guitar in 1925 for Andrés Segovia, whose name it bears, the piano arrangement—the work of Roussel himself— of Segovia played on this disc ingeniously preserves the distinct guitar rhythms of the bolero, crisply rendered by Mr. Armengaud.

The Trois Pièces of 1933, dedicated to and first performed by Robert Casadesus, cover a great deal of stylistic ground, from Viennese Classicism to Jazz.  The pieces are sharply contrasted by Roussel, who increasingly dedicated his creative energy during the last years of his life to sharp delineation of his individual technique.  In the Trois Pièces, this resulted in carefully-wrought rhythmic foundations for each of the three pieces, foundations that are meticulously recreated by Mr. Armengaud.  Nods to Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann are accomplished by the pianist without any suggestions of parody or heaviness.  Published as his Opus 46, the Prélude et Fugue incorporates Roussel’s final work for piano, the 1934 Prélude.  The Fugue was composed two years earlier in homage to Bach, of whose music Mr. Armengaud is also a notable interpreter, and his playing expertly unites the 18th and 20th Centuries.  The virtuosity demanded by the Prélude ripples from Mr. Armengaud’s fingers with every appearance of ease, his flexible but firm sense of rhythm again serving the composer’s music ideally.

Albert Roussel’s name may never be spoken in the same breath with those of Debussy and Satie, but the imaginative, technically accomplished but never academic playing of Jean-Pierre Armengaud on this disc confirms that Roussel’s music for piano is no less worthy of attention from the world’s more insightful pianists than that of his more familiar contemporaries.  Indeed, this disc, recorded in wonderfully clear sound that transports the listener to the ‘sweet spot’ in a small, acoustically superb recital hall, is something of a revelation: rather than compromising standards of excellence with another half-hearted recital of music by Beethoven or Chopin, this disc thrillingly allows a true artist of the keyboard—of all the pianists active in the world today, perhaps the one best suited to this repertory—to share with the listener a voyage into a sumptuous musical world.  Which label other than NAXOS would take such a chance and deliver a disc as momentous as this one?