Spring Symphonies 6/60 Roussel: Symphony No 3

Albert Roussel (1869 - 1937), former sailor, didn't really hit his stride in his symphonies until this work written when he was in his sixties.  If you want to hazard a guess at what symphonies by Ravel might have sounded like if he hadn't been wallowing in fits of nostalgia, then Roussel's Third might be your best place to start.  But Roussel really was quite a step on from the delicate tracery of Ravel and for that matter the usual French symphonic model of the day - a model inspired by Franck, promoted by his pupil d'Indy.

It's not a long work but it packs a lot in and starts in a way that befits a symphony written as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

A heavily scored, urgent quasi-industrial opening is given a healthy twist with an off beat bass drum thud and woodwind that in hardly any time at all drifts on strings to a more serene place and then as in all the best French music the flute ushers in a softer second subject. There's something immediately striking by all this reciprocating energy mixed with a positively fairground approach to scoring.  Its exciting, engrossing and eminently "foot-tap"able.  When a big tune does come along it has a sweeping quality which were it around longer might be mistaken for Korngold.  But this is all very busy and no mood last more than a page or two of the score. The byplay is vivid, the harmonics exotic though never atonal and the orchestration is marvellous - though it must be a monster to record.  The movement ends as it begins with confidence and swagger and the coda is pleasingly terse.

There's something very familiar about Roussel's style a mix I suspect of popular music of the period and straightfoward styles emerging from Prokofiev, Ravel and others who knowingly or not were rejecting the course of Schonberg, Stravinsky and the other radicals.  The slow movements turns its face from Hollywood to dance and then busts out into a fugue of supreme motoristic delicacy and power but every now and then fades back Hollywood in swoop of harps or some such.  The slow movement also shows how short-winded a Mahlerian idiom can be if you try it and how much more power it gains as a result, particularly on rehearing.  At the end of the movement a solo violin is hopelessly romantic - but not for too long. The next movement has more than a hint of Martinu and all the glee of a circus - Malcolm Arnold at his best perhaps.  But don't blink - there's only 3 minutes of it!

The finale whirls around in a balletic mood - this has an edge but bustles along and one is reminded how distant the reverend and august music of Cesar Franck is in the memory.  This is metropolitan music: non-programmatic, non-pictorial but intensely familiar in all its guises. How the Boston Symphony Orchestra must have loved this commission - an ideal light-spirited, but substantial offering for a 50 year old orchestra. The finale is a tour de force and the ending is as jolly as you'll find in a symphony - bold, confident and marvellously clever.

Sadly there's no YouTube clip that does it justice - so I suggest you seek out Dutoit or Deneve on CD or download and give your ears a treat.  Here's Deneve on Spotify if that's helpful.


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