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Charles-François GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1855) [25:51]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat Major (1856) [35:52]
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. 2018, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Gounod is one of France’s most successful composers of the nineteenth century and like Mendelssohn, his German contemporary ten years his senior, he was born into a comfortably well-off family who could afford travel for tuition. Both composers had learnt to play the piano with their mothers at an early age. Although Gounod was a student of the Paris Conservatoire, he moved to Germany where he associated with Mendelssohn in Leipzig.

The two symphonies were written when the composer was in his late thirties and they capture the romanticism prevalent at the time. A year earlier Gounod had written a Mass for St Cecilia that was performed in Paris on St Cecilia’s Day. It was the considerable success of this event that cemented his fame as a composer and so, a year later, he had the confidence to release his first symphony. With its uplifting melody, especially the themes of the first and third movements, it became an instant success.

In Roger Nichols’s interesting background notes to Gounod’s works (in English, French and German) we hear how he took a number of years to develop his first symphony and had even asked Mendelssohn to give an opinion on his framing. To me the writing of both symphonies is splendid, yet neither convey any feeling of Mendelssohn’s style. Instead they carry a strong Beethoven flavour, particularly the second symphony where in a number of places dramatic chords punctuate the thematic flow. In the first symphony, I detect a style and melodic structure resembling that of Bizet’s well-known Symphony in C that happened to be written a year later. This fact is of no surprise when one learns that Bizet had been a 17 year-old student of Gounod, so maybe the strong likeness found in the Symphony in C was to pay homage to his tutor. The second symphony is dark in mood and more ponderous. I find its third Scherzo movement particularly heavy and somewhat disappointing. One needs to wait until the fourth movement for this symphony to awaken with energy and sparkle, found in its superb Finale Allegro.

Tortelier doesn’t disappoint in this recording and generally moves through the bars at a sprightly pace. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra respond with warmth and vitality; the clearly defined wind sections and rich bass nicely enhancing the depth of Gounod’s score. However the disc is lightly filled. One might have hoped that a generous recording period of three days would allow a filler to be included, perhaps Gounod’s charming Petite Symphonie, also of 1885, since its full score is readily available. Despite a number of recordings being extant their couplings are not necessarily ideal for all collectors and so its appearance could have been welcomed.

In a comparison with Plasson’s Toulouse 1979 EMI recording of Symphonies 1 & 2, the two conductors are found to take the works at similar speeds apart from two movements: Plasson’s Symphony One’s second movement, is 1:30 longer because he moves the second section at a much slower pace than Tortelier. In Symphony Two’s third movement, Tortellier adds 2:40 to the time, thus making it more ponderous. Here, the identity of a swift-moving Scherzo is lost and it tends to lack the impact and excitement found with Plasson. Both recordings have their merits in performance and acoustic; however, the EMI disc carries a slight amount of background noise in places. Had this Chandos disc been provided with a filler then it would fully put the EMI recording in the shade.

Raymond J Walker

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