So when I opened the package from my editors and these two CDs for review fell out, I felt like someone was pointing a finger at me and saying, "Quick! Tell me everything you know about Albert Roussel!"
Uh ... not a lot, really. I didn't have a lot of his music, I hadn't listened to any in a long time, and the first other composer I mentally associated him with was Arthur Honegger, which doesn't really make much sense. Honegger was a generation younger than Roussel, and their compositions don't sound much alike (well, up to a point: see below). I later realized that the association was because I'm interested in symphonies, and Roussel and Honegger were the two leading French composers of symphonies in the first half of the 20C.
Symphonies are not generally considered a French specialty, not after Berlioz anyway, and to write a lot of them marks a French composer as an academic, or, worse, Teutonic. But that's unfair. Listen to Roussel's early ballet The Spider's Banquet and you're apt to say - or at least I did - that this is lush, lurid romantic impressionism like Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. And the association with the Impressionists does make chronological sense, as Roussel was halfway in age between Debussy and Ravel. He just seems weighted later, because he considerably outlived Debussy, and remained active up to his death, which the ailing Ravel did not.
The dirty secret is that I don't much like Daphnis et Chloe; it's my least favorite Ravel work. But that's partly because it seems to go on too long, and The Spider's Banquet is at least succinct.
Turn to the other CD, though, which is very late Roussel, and you have a different though related composer. Impressionist decadence of harmony is gone, and in its place is a vigorous dryness, that gets drier as it goes along. Does it really excite or grab me? Frankly, no. But I do like the general cut of the older Roussel's jib, and I particularly liked the style of the Sinfonietta for strings, one of the last-composed works on the album. It had the crisp vigor of a lot of northern European string music of the same era, the mid/late 1930s (Britten, Wiren, Larsson), and it's uncannily similar to - surprise! - the direction that Honegger was moving in around the same time. As I described it in a concert review a couple years ago. In these works, Roussel is the more complex, sophisticated composer, but Honegger is the one with more genius. C'est la musique, or something like that.