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François-Joseph GOSSEC (1734-1829)
Symphonies op. IV
Symphony No.1 in D major [10.48]
Symphony No.2 in E major [9.05]
Symphony No.3 in F major [12.14]
Symphony No.4 in C major [12.03]
Symphony No.5 in E major “Pastorella” [12.08]
Symphony No.6 in D minor [14.34]
Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss / Simon Gaudenz
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal
CPO 555 263-2 [61.24]

I have sometimes wondered what the musical world would like if Paris, rather than Vienna, had been its centre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven would be secondary figures, of interest to specialists. The big names would of course be Gossec, Méhul and Cherubini. In that alternative world Gossec, would be the father of the symphony, an equivalent to the position Haydn holds for us. He composed some thirty odd examples of the form, though he later moved away from it in favour of stage works.

Here we have his second set of symphonies. He liked to issue them in sets of six. They have a great deal in common: in the first place they are all individually very short, even by the standards of early Haydn or Mozart; the longest here lasts less than fifteen minutes. They are all in four movements. Each begins with a sonata form allegro, which is followed by a slow movement, a minuet and a very short and fast finale, usually marked Presto. They are all for string orchestra with a pair of oboes or horns, except the last which is for strings alone. There is a good deal of rhythmic vitality, and the themes are attractive though not especially memorable. Occasionally, there is a feeling of greater depth, as in the slow movements of Nos. 3 and 4. The harmonies can be quite adventurous and Gossec is fond of rather jagged and vigorous themes in his fast movements.

You will gather from this that they are all rather similar, and that is indeed the case for the first five. However, No. 6, the only one in a minor key, is rather different in that the themes are more striking, the pathos of the slow movement more affecting, and the minuet is a really forceful affair. I was surprised to read that it is probably the earliest written of the set, as it seems to me much the most interesting. If it is the earliest, then perhaps Gossec simplified his style to meet the tastes of his audience. If it is in fact later, then it shows him becoming bolder and he is the better for it.

In fact, Vienna was of course the centre of the musical world at the time, and if you compare these symphonies with those of Haydn’s middle period, particularly those collected as the Sturm und Drang symphonies in a set by Trevor Pinnock, you realise the difference between very competent, charming and attractive works and those which are something more - except for that sixth symphony here, which suggests Gossec was capable of greater things.

The Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss is a well-established chamber orchestra which specialises in music of this period. Simon Gaudenz won some prizes and has been building a conducting career with a good deal of guest appearances as well as being music director of the Jena Philharmonic. He gives lively and polished performances, with sensitive phrasing where required and without trying to find depths which are not there. The recording is sympathetic and the booklet, whose English translation is a little strange, has a good deal of useful information, including alerting me to the large number of other symphonists who were active at the time.

This is the only recording of this particular set of Gossec symphonies. There are several other recordings of his symphonies, without much duplication among them, so fans of Gossec will want this anyway. Others who are curious about the symphony in France will find this a useful place to start.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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