Joseph-Guy Ropartz is a composer one is bound to bump into when exploring turn-of-the-century French music. As his friend and colleague Albéric Magnard he was an outsider, spending his time in the province (Nancy, Strasbourg) as a teacher and administrator. But despite these time-consuming duties he had the drive to accumulate a very extensive musical oeuvre, including six symphonies. I've always been intrigued by his reputation as 'Celtic bard' due to his allegiance to his Breton roots and I imagined him as a French pendant to Arnold Bax. So lately I decided to try my luck with a cheap Naxos CD collecting some of Ropartz' vocal works. My overall assessment is that it is certainly skillfully composed music that merits more attention than it gets nowadays. But the calibre of Arnold Bax's output it has not. The style is more unfocused and derivative, which didn't bother Ropartz who once mused that "if the originality of a composer dwells much more in the way of feeling than in the manner of expression, it is permissible for him to clothe his thoughts in traditional forms, without losing in any way his true quality".
The earliest work here, 'Psaume 136' (Super flumina Babylonis; from 1897) is clearly indebted to César Franck. It's hard to overstate the massive influence of this Franco-Belgian master on a generation of young French composers. There's also a whiff of Berliozian monumentality (organ and brass perorations) which is very apt given the psalm's subject matter. It's a 15-minute, tightly composed piece - with a solemn and somber introduction, an animated, polyphonic middle part and a short quiet coda - that shows a good command of the orchestra. The language is, as already said, conventional but there are a few striking harmonic moves nevertheless. In terms of originality and power it's no match, however, for similar settings from some of his contemporary colleagues (Florent Schmitt: Psaume XLVII, Lili Boulanger - Du fond de l'abîme) Nevertheless, Ropartz' effort merits repeated audition.
The longest piece on this CD is 'Le Miracle de Saint Nicolas', a legend in 16 short tableaux that tells the lugubrious story about 3 boys that were killed and pickled by a butcher, but after seven years resuscitated by Saint Nicolas (with appropriate punishment for the perpetrator). The musical language is simple, deliberately so no doubt, lending the piece the character of a mystery play for amateurs and communities (in the spirit, say, of Britten's 'Noye's Fludde'). Musically, it reminds me more of the young Debussy (a watered down version of 'La Damoiselle Elue') rather than Franck. The piece is scored for string orchestra with continuo parts for organ, piano and harp. There's a choir, children's voices and solos for a narrator, the butcher and Nicolas. All in all it's a quite atmospheric piece, maybe just a tad monotonous.
The three remaining shorter pieces are attractive works for choir and orchestra. 'Dimanche'was written in 1911. 'Nocturne' and 'Les Vêpres Sonnent' date from the late 1920s. Again the style seems to orient itself quite emphatically to Debussy. Celtic echoes I didn't hear anywhere on this disc.
All in all a worthwhile release that didn't bowl me over but provides incentive enough to seek out a recording of his Third Symphony which is said to be Ropartz's masterpiece.
The performance by the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy led by Michel Piquemal is serviceable. The recording is unexceptional.