In some quarters it is fashionable to dismiss Albert Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariane" as a poor man's "Daphnis et Chloe." But that does justice to neither composer or his work.
Superficially the resemblances are striking. Both are ballets with Greek themes (in Roussel's the abandonment of Ariadne by her lover Theseus) by French composers, yet even in complete form they are much better known in the concert hall. (Does anyone dance "Bacchus" these days?) But whereas Ravel's represents perhaps the fullest flowering of French impressionism, capped in two instances by dances of almost Stravinskian vitality, Roussel's, completed in 1930, reflects the post-Stravinskian ethos of 20th-century France, as well as the influence of his teacher, Vincent d'Indy.That means music of even greater vitality (his own student, Poulenc, called him an "admirable teacher of energy") and, occasionally, harmonic daring. (In his liner notes to the above release, Harry Halbreich refers to "that red gold in the brass which is uniquely his.") Indeed, in "Bacchus" one hears the rhythmic bite and symphonic sweep of the Third and Fourth Symphonies together with a dramatic fervor even they do not always equal. No wonder the Second Suite - in essence the second half of the ballet - has long been a showpiece on French concert programs.
Nonetheless we had to wait a long time for a recording of the complete ballet - Jean Martinon's mid-'60s Erato discing, whose angular thrust and subterranean power (like his well-remembered Chicago recording of the Second Suite) still give it a unique claim on the listener's attention. It, however, was supplanted in 1986 by Georges Pretre's digital recording for EMI, a similarly recommendable account that lacked only the final degree of punch and rhythmic acuity.
This latest Erato edition, by contrast, offers a generally suaver and more polished performance, as one would expect from Charles Dutoit. At the same time accents tend to be a little bland, as though the conductor were consciously smoothing over the music's more Stravinskian aspects, and that despite his tasteful highlighting of such things as the semi-jazzy clarinet solos in Act 1.
All of which leaves me preferring the added excitement of Pretre's and, frankly, the punchier EMI recorded sound, even more impactive on CD. EMI's CD, moreover, offers no fewer than 15 indexing bands in the ballet as opposed to Erato's two. On the other hand I find Erato's filler, the nominally baroque Suite in F - here only slightly acerbic - a more attractive proposition than Pretre's pared-down version of "The Spider's Feast."
Just the same, "Bacchus" buffs need to know that in the ballet's closing pages neither matches the sheer voltage of Martinon, Markevitch or Munch (for whom the Second Suite was something of a specialty), the three Ms of any decent Roussel discography.
POULENC: Gloria; Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel; Ave verum corpus; Exultate Deo; Litanies a la Vierge Noire; Salva Regina. Donna Deam, soprano; Cambridge Singers, City of London Sinfonia, John Rutter conducting. Collegium COLCD-108 (CD).
The same intimacy that served John Rutter so well in his ground-breaking recording of the Faure Requiem is here applied to what is normally thought of as a considerably splashier score, the Poulenc Gloria, to almost equal effect.
To be sure, it is anything but a French sound that emanates from this oh-so-pure English chorus (with boys instead of women). But the details of the scoring, both vocal and instrumental (e.g., the brass writing), emerge with a crispness and clarity no other recording can rival.
Occasionally that verges on the pedantic - e.g., the "Laudamus te" and "Domine Fili unigenite," which despite the sharply defined rhythms miss something of the music's impulse, about equal parts wit, energy and devotion. Nor am I partial to the squeezed soprano of Donna Deam in the solos. Otherwise this performance offers strength without the larger-than-life quality of Bernstein (CBS) or Shaw (Telarc, still marginally my favorite), as well as a generous selection of Poulenc's other religious music.
Paramount among the latter is perhaps the 1936 "Litanies," the piece that marked the composer's spiritual rebirth in response to the death, in a road accident, of a colleague. Comparing Rutter's recording of this and the accompanying "Salve regina" with Serge Baudo's, on French Harmonia Mundi, is instructive. For in place of the former's elegance and luminosity, Rutter brings a cleaner, more detached sensibility, less impassioned but every bit as committed in its way.
Ditto his effective scaling in the two sets of motets, which here have wonderful clarity and point even if the prevailing atmosphere is more English than French. But what comes through either way is Poulenc's absolute sincerity of utterance, and that is true even when his heavenward gaze cannot hide a twinkle in his eye.