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Etienne MÉHUL (1763-1817)
The Complete Symphonies of Méhul

Overture: La Chasse du Jeune Henri (1797) [10.35]
Symphony No. 1 in G minor (1808-9) [25:57]
Symphony No. 2 in D major (1808-9) [27:33]
Overture: Le Trésor Supposé (1802) [4.28]
Symphony No. 3 in C major (1809) [23:40]
Symphony No. 4 in E major (1810) [25:44]
The Gulbenkian Orchestra/Michel Swierczewski
rec. Lisbon, Portugal, 19-23 December 1988. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5184/5 [64:05 + 53:52]

This Ardennes-born pupil of Gluck wrote some forty-two operas of which these days most people know only the overtures. For years Méhul lived on among English-speaking audiences because Beecham championed La Chasse du Jeune Henri and several of the other operatic overtures. You can hear him in Timoléon; Le Trésor Supposé and La Chasse du Jeune Henri on Sony (see review). La Chasse was also taken up by Albert Wolff who can be heard on the Timpani label (see review).
The symphonies might seem to be something of a side-show to his many operas but they are in fact much more than merely estimable. These are handsome works that move and sing with an elegance that draws sustenance from precise yet springy performances from Swierczewski and his Lisbon orchestra.
La Chasse instantly announces a 34 year old composer at ease with the idiom of late Mozart and early Beethoven. That sighing initial theme is in the style of the great Wolfgang. Horn-calls and quiet galloping ostinati build tension and prepare or track through the ground for Weber’s overtures and symphonies and for Beethoven. It is not the last time that we will catch fugitive echoes of Beethoven 5 which are also evident in the bristlingly athletic finale of the First Symphony which also recalls Rossini. Intriguingly the start of La Chasse recalls George Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow.
The Second Symphony contrasts grandmaster gesture with affable and warm writing that again brings us to Mozart’s 40 and 41 and Beethoven’s first two symphonies. The finale has a lovely liquid sense of movement. I wonder if the composer heard his symphonies played this well during his own time; I rather doubt it. Like all these works they are cleanly orchestrated – a joy to hear.
Le Trésor Supposé is touched with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and with Beethoven’s Pastoral – supple and pleasing music.
The first two symphonies are not unknown to collectors but number 3 and 4 were only discovered by David Charlton in 1979. The Third again has the effervescent irrepressible energy of Mozart’s Jupiter bustling and inspirational in the outer movements. The shade of Beethoven is very strong in the Andante. The Fourth Symphony is in four movements unlike the Third. Méhul uses the horns cannily yet assertively. The cellos present a broad and warm ‘Pilgrims’ March’ over a cockle-warming pizzicato in the Andante. The finale is a thing of sheer fly-away delight and it is magnificently paced and performed.
What we hear has surely benefited from the extended preparation time evident from the session dates. The recording is notably clean and lively. It recreates what sounds to be a believable and agreeable acoustic.
Ths disc is well annotated by the leading authority on Méhul: David Charlton who thankfully writes like a communicator rather than an academic but with the gravity of someone who knows his subject from firsthand sources.
If you seek a more modest bargain price introduction to Méhul then try the first two symphonies on Naxos 8.555402 with the Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra/Jorge Rotter and Warner Apex 0927 49535 2 with Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski (see review); both discs from the late 1980s.
In these days when we can hear the symphonies of Ries and Cannabich do not neglect Méhul the symphonist. He has the capacity to delight still and these recordings are a sublime avenue through which to approach this composer.
Rob Barnett


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