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Charles-François GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in D Major (completed by 1855) [25:43]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat Major (completed by 1856) [35:54]
Icelandic Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. 2018, Eldborg, Harpa, Reykjavík, Iceland

For most people I imagine the way into the music of Charles-François Gounod was through his opera Faust; but not for me, indeed I still do not possess a recording of it. If not Faust, then probably the Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile provided a starting point, something I only came to later in my appreciation of the composer. I started with a wonderful disc of his smaller scale choral works including his Messe Breve and his Seven Last Words (83.161), his songs and his string quartets came next and then his symphonies, and whilst I know Faust and Roméo et Juliette, they still haven’t made it to the top of my wish list.

Born in Paris, the son of a pianist mother and an artist father, Gounod showed great musical talent as he studied with his mother before entering the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Fromental Halévy and Pierre Zimmerman, later marrying the latter’s daughter Anne. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839 with his cantata Fernand, and in 1854 he completed his first real masterpiece, the Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile, which received its first complete performance the following year in Paris. During this period Gounod became interested in composing a symphony, even managing to get the authorities behind the Prix de Rome to extend his studies in Italy so that he could work on it. There is also evidence that whilst visiting Mendelssohn in Leipzig, Gounod was urged to give up his infatuation with Goethe’s Faust in favour of ‘another’ symphony.

The gestation of the two symphonies was somewhat protracted, with no real evidence as to where and when they were actually completed, with Roger Nichols, in his excellent booklet notes, pointing out that the first real documented evidence for the works is their inclusion in concerts, and that they were composed in the ten years preceding, hence the description of ‘completed by…’ as their dates of composition above.

I have always been taken with the Symphony in D, its frothy and typically French music being very attractive, especially in the outer movements, whilst the second movement Allegretto moderato has always seemed quite dramatic, almost like an overture at time, especially in its development of the thematic material. This comes through well in the recordings by Michel Plasson (CDM 7 63949 2) and Patrick Gallois (8.557463), and again here in this new recording by Yan Pascal Tortelier. However, I think it is Tortelier who best exploits the link between Gounod’s Symphony No. 1 and the Symphony of Bizet. What the other two recordings fail to do for me is bring out the beauty of the Symphony in E flat; here it is left to Yan Pascal Tortelier to really bring this work to life. Plasson seems to whisk through the work, while Gallois drags his feet and those of his orchestra; Tortelier, however, seems to get it spot on. The opening Adagio of the first movement Adagio - Allegro agitato has real poise, whilst the transition into the Allegro section is handled deftly. Tortelier also exploits the beauty of the Larghetto, whilst his handling of the Scherzo and the final movement only serves to identify the Symphony No. 2 as the stronger of the two symphonies, something that doesn’t come through elsewhere.

The performance is wonderful throughout, with Tortelier’s obvious zeal for these two symphonies driving the music forward, something that the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra are more than up to. They give a detailed and precise performance, without losing anything of the gaiety and flavour of the music, more so than either Plasson or Gallois achieves from their bands. The recorded sound is up to Chandos’s usual high standard, with no loss of detail in the quicker sections, something you don’t get from the Plasson recording, and as already mentioned the booklet notes by Roger Nichols are excellent, making this a very desirable recording, one which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Raymond Walker

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