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Francois-Joseph GOSSEC (1734-1829)
Grands Messe des Morts
Symphonie a 17 parties

Barbara Invernizzi (sop)
Maite Arrauabarrena (mezzo)
Howard Crook (ten)
Claude Darbella (bass)
Gruppo Vocale Cantemus Coros del Radio Svizzera
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Wolf-Dieter Hanschild/Diego Fasolis
rec. 10. 4. 98 Cathedral si San Lorenzo, Lugano; 16. 2. 98 RSI Auditorium, Lugano symphony)
NAXOS 8.554750-51 2CDs [111.33]
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Imagine Rameau's nephew talking to Beethoven and surviving Schubert. Francois-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a pupil of Rameau, born the year of Beck, two after Haydn, four before Hofmann and five before Vanhal and Dittersdorf. Living to 95, the pupil of Rameau saw the rise of Berlioz. But he was more interesting than a mere bridge: he profoundly influenced Berlioz and Cherubini - and through him, Beethoven. He also helped shape the course of the French symphony, amongst other things. An example of his work in the symphonic field is included here; there are others on Naxos 8.553790 (with Beck), and Chandos CHAN 9661. He subsequently wrote music for the revolutionary régimes.

Born at Verginies, Hainaut, in 1734 he was a chorister at Walcourt, Maubeuge and finally at the Court of Notre-Dame in Antwerp. Moving to Paris in 1751, armed with an introduction to Rameau he obtained employment with the latter's patron, the fermier-géneral, Le Riche de La Pouplinaire, playing violin and bass. This brought him into contact with Johan Stamitz, the Mannheim composer conducting the court band. Gossec wrote symphonies for this orchestra until his patron died in 1762. Employment with the Prince de Condé and Prince de Conti brought stage works, and his own establishment in 1769 of the Concert des Amateurs - which led to Haydn's Paris symphonies. Involved now with the Concert Spirituel till 1777 and the opéra, second to Gluck and Grétry, Gossec continued with this until the Revolution intervened.

Involved with an organisation that was absorbed into the new Conservatoire, the Ecole Royale de Chant, Gossec became one of the new organisation's five inspectors. Gossec was quite happy to provide various popular and public works to the new spirit: to Liberty, Voltaire, Rousseau, the Supreme Being; to humanity. With Napoleon's accession as Emperor in 1804 Gossec devoted himself primarily to teaching and administration, composing comparatively little Still, he completed the symphony on this disc, sketched 1792, completed 1809. With a reverse of fortunes, 1816 brought the Bourbons, the closure of the Conservatoire until 1831, and Gossec's enforced retirement at 82. When the Conservatoire re-opened Gossec had been dead two years, spending his last years at Passy, where Le Riche de La Pouplinaire had housed his musicians.

This Grands Messe des Morts dates from 1760, clearly before most of this happened. It was in fact published in 1780, and used to commemorate the dead citizens in the storming of the Bastille. By this time Cherubini had arrived to take it in perhaps. It would certainly have been studied by him, especially as the two composers became colleagues. It's a work in the early classical tradition, and is quite fascinating. For instance, the close of the introitus, classical to a tee, emits a closing cadence straight out of Rameau. It's a flicker, and the full fermata is classical enough. But it's there. By contrast, and fittingly near the close of this long journey, like Gossec's life, the Offertorium offers some startling pre-echoes of Berlioz, the very sound of his own Op 5 Grands Messe des Morts. The whole scale of the work is suggested by a five minute Introduction, that leads to the Introitus mentioned, where soprano Roberta Invernizzi is allowed to shine; a Graduale of half that 11 minute length, and particularly, a Sequenzia. This contains the baroque g minor opening: Dies Irae and Lacrymosa amongst other things. It holds the most varied writing, as its title suggests, a cornucopia of early classic outings, gestures and experiments. The Dies Irae, after dramatic interjections and singing by the chorus, enters on a strange shivering passage of quavering dread, briefly reminiscent of Purcell's King Arthur. The bass Claude Darbellay is well-exposed here, showing some of the French agility and range one expects in French basses. Mostly he declaims in E flat, thrillingly against trumpets in the tuba mirum. In the Recordare, a strange stalking figure creates a passacaglia with soloists intertwining on top. It almost sounds like a fandango. Eventually trombones join in. It's a stroke of genius, stasis and revolving time brought into hypnotic relief. The fugal Confutatis of XIII is particularly thrilling. In XV, the Lacrymosa, soprano Roberta Invernizzi and mezzo Maite Arrauabarrena intertwine like the two Marys, or perhaps two Magdalenes. A formal but heartfelt weeping with an undulating shudder that's onomatopoeic.

All the soloists are excellent, and Howard Crook puts in a particularly appealing contribution to the Offertorium. This is another 12 minutes of revelation, chordal and choral - so Berliozian its influence seems clear. The Sanctus is less than a minute, the brief Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei and Post Communionem all adding to a cumulative layering of choral writing, and bursting out at the end in a very Gallic affirmation. Nothing of Lutheran modesty here. One recalls the Bishop of Durham, after Ethel Smyth's superb Mass in d minor of 1893: 'God is not so much implored as commanded to have mercy.' There is a sense here (like the 1662 and 1928 Prayer Books, though Englished) of the Gloria placed last. It isn't, but the effect is of the public being permitted to hope. So are we. This is a real discovery, a masterwork by a gifted but overshadowed composer, whose strands unite here and make one question that plateau between his master, Rameau, and the man whom he influenced and who revived French music, Berlioz. His younger contemporary, Cherubini, learnt much in his own settings, and Cherubini, once wholly underrated, is prefigured here too.

There's the very substantial symphony to close, and it really adds to one's understanding of Gossec's earlier symphonies. For in this nearly 28 minute work he's clearly expanded his scale. There's a late Haydnesque classical language, proportion, and particularly French instrumentation (in wind solos) to scale a new age. Phrases in the first movement's allegro molto recall Mozart more than Haydn, and the brightness of Vanhal. Visiting composers left their impression, even brattish wunderkind. But the tonal palate and incident are Gossec's own. The slow movement, as one would expect, reveal this more fully. Clarinets have arrived, and an underpinning of horns at certain points again seem almost Beethovenian. This is as forward-looking as anything of its time; though its time was split over 17 years, like its 17 orchestral parts. One generously applies the earlier date. But clearly Gossec was still learning in 1809. A brooding minuet follows, quite unlike anything else of its kind, with wind and brass interjections, rather like the ticking in the Clock Symphony. Nearing ten minutes, it's the heart of the work, a quirky meditation on time perhaps, unwinding with occasional fugato gestures to a thoughtful conclusion. A grand but quite brief allegro assai thrusts home the whole invention with a bustle of individual woodwinds played with a trilling that scales up and down the string textures. This is a powerful and powerfully-scored work; again opening the French sound world to the delicacies and grandeur of French orchestration. It provides the link between these two great orchestrators, Rameau and Berlioz yet again. Though not a whit detracting from Berlioz, it shows the unbroken line of French orchestral writing culminated in the work of the younger composer, then radiated out again. One recalls, too, those very French civic bands, full of trombones. It provides a substantial and fitting contrast, chronologically and generically. Now it'd be good to explore all those revolutionary works. The best of these must be more than worth reviving.

Simon Jenner

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