The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (241): More French than Ravel

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (241): More French than Ravel


norman lebrecht

November 23, 2020

Why do we never hear the music of Albert Roussel?

Once rated the finest French symphonist, Roussel (1869-1937) had a Debussyan gift for atmospherics (listen to those flute solos) and a more identifiably French je-ne-sais-quoi than Ravel. The third symphony is rivetting. So why has he been dumped?

He also loved cats.

Lennie was keen on the 3rd symph.


  • Alexander says:

    When I hear Debussy I always think of Rimsky-Korsakov , who was ( somehow, in a way) Debussy’s “music godfather”. Having listened to that music piece I can only add that Rimsky-Debussy’s influence can be heard here ( to my ears) very distinctively . The music itself is powerful and impressive
    PS just my opinion, of course 😉

  • Jean says:

    Good question. I think Roussel, although forward-looking, somehow seems more traditional and “heavier” in terms of orchestration than Debussy and Ravel ? (Just guessing….)

    • John Borstlap says:

      True. Those two set some standard of Frenchness, although Debussy was much too exotic to be considered ‘typical french’. Ravel is much more identifiable as representing French cultural values: classicist, elegant, etc.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    Is he really obscure? 20 years ago I bought his complete symphonies set– Dutoit. Also I have an old Charles Munch recording of the 3rd and 4th with a French orchestra– scrappy strings at several places, woodwind that doesn’t blend, but the performances are just as thrilling as his Berlioz Fantastiques [ BTW, I don’t know why the British critics preferred Colin Davis’s Fantastiques over Munch’s late 1960s ODParis version.]
    The recent Chandos album of his ‘Evocations’ is fascinating, though admittedly I got this because of my Indian background– Roussel was apparently inspired to write it based on his experiences travelling in colonised India.

  • James Benson says:

    Happy to agree with you on the superb Roussel Third Symphony. As a regular at the Usher Hall, it was a particular pleasure to catch Denève directing it with its dedicatees, the Boston Symphony in Orchestra Hall a few years ago.

  • Jason Lewis says:

    What the hell is a more identifiably French je-ne-sais-quoi? Please do elaborate.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Stylishness, refinement, clarity, elegance, and objective beauty instead of subjective emotional confessions. Also: descriptive, as if music is a kind of visual aid. Roussel’s 3rd is romantic, heavy, downbeat, subjective, thick and quite rude at places – it is music like a peasant and thus less suited to salon conversation.

  • Very difficult to exist 100 years later in the shadow of a genius like Ravel in France and outside… it’s a little bite the same situation in less worst for Saint-Saens

  • Eric says:

    Why don’t we hear more Roussel and others who have suffered in the same way? Well, contrary to popular belief – the internet actually shrunk the world rather than opening it up. Despite more repertoire being available than ever before, the same few warhorses are trotted out time and time again across the world…

    • Even with the famous composers of the past you can have this kind of situation. recently I try to hear the first symphony of Richard Strauss I found it only on Youtube with a sound quality not fantastic. There’s also the curious case of the Dvořák’s symphonies before the 7th I have the feeling, never played outside of Central Europe. I can talk also about the Khatchatourian and Enescu symphonies… Those musics deserve respect.

  • Novagerio says:

    I have the impression we have touched this subject earlier. Albert Roussel obscure?
    His mixture of impressionism and exotism is thrilling, his main works have been recorded by Münch, Cluytens, Dutoit, Bernstein (the above Third is my favourite rendition of the two Bernstein recorded), Karajan recorded the 4th with the Philharmonia, and Neeme Järvi and the Detroit have also made thrilling recordings of the main works.
    Stéphane Denève has made a fine cycle on Naxos.
    The symphonies 3 & 4, the ballets Bacchus and Ariadne and Le festin de l’araignée, the Sinfonietta and the Petite Suite are masterpieces and part of the main repertoire (the opera Padmâvatî maybe less so).

    As a curiosity, both Roussel and Rimsky were in the Navy (!)

  • Gerry McDonald says:

    On the chamber music front the excellent Joueurs de flute are deservedly considered standard repertoire.

  • John Borstlap says:

    This fine symphony sounds more Russian than French – it is a sturdy kind of music peppered with ‘brutalism’, which was thought of as ‘modern’ in the twenties and thirties, as one of the reactions against ‘impressionism’ (the other reactions were neoclassicism and brasserie-banality). One sees comparable trends in sculpture and architecture.

    No wonder Roussel is not popular in France, there is not much frenchness in his later music.

  • Peter says:

    If you like the Third Symphony, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the Suite in F which is in the same harmonic and melodic vein. Both are such strong, vibrant works with equal doses of joy, humor, and pathos.


    Having heard this excerpt from No. 3, I’m going to buy the Naxos set – my contribution to a Roussel revival??

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Steven,
      Instead of (or even in addition to) the Naxos set, buy first the marvelous super-budget 11-CD set of Roussel on Warner/Erato (“Albert Roussel Edition”, cat. no. 0190295489168). It contains all 4 symphonies plus all the works mentioned by commenters on this post, in idiomatic performances ranging from excellent to superb, in good sound, and even includes one disc of historical Roussel recordings.
      Unfortunately, being a super-budget set, sung texts are missing, but other than that it might be the only Roussel issue you’ll ever need.
      (PS – I love Roussel!)

  • Joel Lazar says:

    Having had the pleasure of university/graduate school days at Harvard during the last years of Munch’s tenure I heard the BSO play a fair amount of Roussel. Absolutely wonderful stuff. Among the finest interwar symphonies, I think–a genre and period sorely neglected in the contemporary repertoire. If I had to pick one major work to plug it would be either the Second Act [=Second Suite] from Bacchus et Ariane or the Third Symphony…others might opt for the Suite en Fa or the Fourth Symphony…

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Not to question the big picture, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra has not forgotten Roussel. Conductors like Haitink, Denève and Altinoglou have conducted his music in the last decades.

  • We privatize your value says:

    He has been less dumped than Charles Tournemire, who, with his 8 symphonies in a very personal style, should be the French Sibelius or Nielsen, but isn’t. (Check out the monumental 7th, “Les Danses de la Vie”.)

  • Minnesota says:

    Roussel’s music, it seems to me, is clearly French with various Russian influences, from Rimsky to Prokofiev. I very much enjoy it and am disappointed that it is rarely played in the U.S. in concert or on classical radio. (Deneve conducting in St. Louis is the exception.) Classical radio in the U.S. now is mainly in the “relaxation and comfort” music business, to quote the new music director of Minnesota Public Radio and its national arm, American Public Media. Roussel’s music isn’t difficult to listen to, but he wasn’t writing palliatives for insomnia and anxiety.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The only Roussel I can recall hearing in concert was the Milwaukee Symphony under Kenneth Schermerhorn playing the Spider’s Feast ballet music (Novagerio, above, refers to the work by its French title Le festin de l’araignée). It is to be frank rather hard to imagine what the actual ballet and dancing (and costumes!) must look like, but it could make a fascinating experience in animation backed by the music.

    An old American Decca LP has another fascinating Roussel work, The Suite in F op. 33 – a real showpiece for orchestra (Max Rudolf conducting the Cincinnati Symphony). The perfect concert opener but not, to my ears at least, the least bit Debussy-ian.

  • Don Pasquale says:

    Actually he has not been dumped. Stephane Deneve performed his worked regularly with the RSNO and made a series of recordings as well.

  • buxtehude says:

    When Bohuslav Martinů finally found his way out of Czechoslovakia in 1923 at age 33, he made a bee-line to Roussel’s home and convinced the older man to take him on as a student, despite not knowing a word of French and having very little money.

    What’s described as an “an amazingly few and widely-spaced series of lessons” set Martinu on his course in short order; by the time of R’s widely celebrated 60th birthday in 1929 he was describing Martinu as his own “greatest achievement.” So hat’s off.

  • Clarrieu says:

    Don’t forget to mention the fantastic 2nd Symphony as well, and here is a remarkable piano piece (N.3 from Trois Pièces op.49), quite known among French pianists:

  • Mark Sebastian Jordan says:

    One of my favorite little-known Roussel works is his Concert pour petit orchestre. A vigorous and brusque first movement, a somber slow movement, and a colorful merry-go-round finale. I can’t believe it isn’t played more often.

  • The Third and Fourth Symphonies are masterpieces, the Petite Suite, Evocations, and Suite in F sublime. The solo piano music is also waiting to be rediscovered. On the other hand, I heard the String Quartet, so you don’t have to……but all in all, one of the great French composers.

  • Tichy says:

    I have loved this recording by Bernstein for many years now! Jean Sibelius apparently was very fond of Roussel, too. And he didn’t like Debussy that much…

  • James Benson says:

    what a refreshingly positive and interesting bunch of comments on Roussel- many thanks for all sorts of suggestions, recommendations and observations- it’s really great to see a bit of enthusiasm as well as evident courtesy and respect for a variety of opinions on slippedisc. Just saying.

  • E says:

    Why am I reminded of Russian music here?