Albert Roussel: Psalm 80 -- Aeneas is a release on the French Timpani label combining four little-heard works of Roussel dating from his last years, and it is an intelligently conceived program that helps open the door to Roussel's late style. Of the four works presented here, only the Fanfare pour un sacre païen and Aeneas have been recorded before; in the latter case the sole alternative is a rendering set down by Jean Martinon back in 1969. These recordings, featuring conductor Bramwell Tovey, EuropaChorAkademie, and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, were made in Belgium in May 2004 and issued later the same year -- a quick turnaround for such an ambitious project.
Aeneas is riveting, intense, and highly theatrical music. Although Aeneas is described as a "ballet for chorus and orchestra," it is more like a semi-operatic cantata in the vein of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and deserves to be as popular. In Aeneas, Roussel lets his imagination run riot; one even hears snatches of jazz and, toward the end of the work, references to nineteenth-century-styled music, particularly hearkening back to the orchestral sound world of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The 52-second-long Fanfare pour un sacre païen is catchy, arresting, and too short. Less immediate is Le Bardit des Francs, which does not leave much of an impression. Although Psalm 80 is presented in its original English-language version, the English enunciation of the chorus is not clear and this recording sounds like it could've been made 40 years ago. The rather muddy perspective, or lack of it, between the soloist, huge chorus, and huge orchestra makes Psalm 80 rather confusing and difficult to follow, even though the texts and copious notes are included.
Fans of Roussel will want this just to having access to Psalm 80, one of the most clamored after works in his catalog. For the rest, Albert Roussel: Psalm 80 -- Aeneas may or may not be at least worth a try. For the uninitiated, the Martinon, found on a now-deleted Teldec "Ultima" 2-for-1 package, might still be the way to go for Aeneas, owing to its friendlier filler and bargain price.