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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67 [31:43]
François-Joseph GOSSEC (1736-1829)
Symphonie à dix-sept parties, RH64 [22:52]
Les Siècles /François-Xavier Roth
rec. March 2017, Philharmonie de Paris (Beethoven), February 2020, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902423 [54:39]

My review copy of this release arrived with only about a month left before the year of Beethoven 250 comes to an end. The pairing of Beethoven’s most famous symphony and a much less well-known one by a French composer may seem strange at first sight. However, François-Xavier Roth and his colleagues in Les Siècles have made a typically thoughtful choice. Not only are the two symphonies roughly contemporaneous but, as Roth explains in the booklet, the musicians wanted “to emphasise Beethoven’s special relationship with France”. He cites Beethoven’s well-known regard for the “humanist, utopian ideas of the French Revolution” and his initial admiration for Napoleon, though that admiration did not endure.

The performance of Beethoven’s Fifth is nothing if not arresting. The first movement is thrusting and urgent, the urgency emphasised by Roth’s reluctance to linger over any of the fermata. He and his orchestra bring out all the drama in the music and, indeed, a sense of revolutionary zeal is never far away. The playing is terrifically skilled and engaged. I can imagine that some listeners may find the blistering pace and the turbulence of the performance somewhat unrelenting, but even as the thought crossed my mind it was swiftly followed by the view that such is surely what the composer intended.

If anyone had any misgivings over the pacing of the first movement then I think doubts will be laid to rest in the Andante con moto. Roth is clearly influenced by the ‘con moto’ injunction, but not excessively so; it seems to me that his flowing speed is well-nigh ideal. In this movement the mellow timbre of the woodwind – the bassoons in particular – and the strings are heard to excellent advantage. Roth makes the most of Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts and I especially like the proud declamation of the martial passages. Even more than in the first movement one gets the chance here to relish the clarity of the orchestral sound.

The Scherzo is also expertly judged and I like the gruff sound of the lower strings in the Trio. In this movement the period instruments are ideal for the crepuscular passages and in this connection, I’d single out especially the staccato episode immediately before the transition to the finale, which has a spookiness of which Alfred Hitchcock would surely approve. The transition itself is admirably handled; the tension is maintained until the Allegro bursts out triumphantly. The performance radiates energy. Even though a lot of the music is loud there’s still a great amount of inner clarity – just after 5:00, for example, we hear the benefits of the left/right split of the violins when some whirling figurations often obscured in performance, register to just the right degree. As in the first movement, the music-making is full of urgency but this is a different kind of urgency; it’s the urgency of celebration. In the coda, taken very swiftly, Roth and Les Siècles convey absolute jubilation.

The stimulating and fresh performance of the Fifth is as fine a Beethoven performance as any I’ve heard this year. I was gripped from first to last.

The Gossec coupling is fascinating. I must admit that not only had I not heard this work before but that my knowledge of this composer and his music is extremely limited. Gossec had an extraordinarily long life; as we are reminded in the notes, in his youth he knew Jean-Philippe Rameau, who died in 1769, yet he outlived both Beethoven and Schubert. He seems to have been adept at survival in the turbulence of late eighteenth-century France; he served aristocratic patrons of the Ancien Régime yet he later became, in the words of the booklet, the “musical master of ceremonies” of the Revolution.

The symphony in question originated in a three-movement overture, probably composed in the 1780s, which Gossec reworked into a four-movement symphony, adding a Minuet. The editors of the new critical edition of the work, used for this recording, believe that Gossec did the re-working in 1807 and made further revisions two years later. I like the booklet description of the symphony as “a widescreen remake” of the overture. Incidentally, judging by the booklet note about the critical edition, it seems that Gossec’s manuscripts were a nightmare to work from – because he treated them as works in progress and kept making revisions – and this symphony was especially challenging.

The first movement opens with a forthright Maestoso introduction. The Allegro molto which follows (1:12) is very spirited and the present performance is brimming with vitality. The members of Les Siècles play with absolute conviction and this performance really makes the listener sit up and take notice. There follows a Larghetto which Roth and the orchestra project strongly. I like the character which they put into the music – or, arguably, which they draw out of the music – but as I listened, I wondered if a bit more by way of relaxed elegance might have served Gossec even better. To be sure, there’s finesse in the playing – one would expect nothing less – but the performance is robust and perhaps there’s more charm to bring out in the music?

The Minuet opens with vigorous writing for the string sections – here, once again, the left/right division of the violins pays dividends. Roth obtains great clarity throughout. In the perky Trio woodwind and horns are to the fore. The Allegro molto finale is energetic and extrovert and I especially enjoyed some sparkling woodwind passages. I doubt very much that Gossec’s symphony has ever received a performance of this standard. The work itself is not, I think, a neglected masterpiece. However, the symphony is certainly well worth hearing and advocacy such as this can only help its cause.

I think the pairing of these two near-contemporaneous works is an excellent idea. We all know Beethoven’s Fifth but we still know too little of what some of his contemporaries were producing. I mean no disrespect to Gossec, still less do I wish to belittle his music, but the juxtaposition of these two scores offers a potent reminder of what an original, blazing genius Beethoven was.

As I hope I’ve conveyed, both performances are superb. I’ve heard Roth and Les Siècles in quite a lot of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century repertoire but it’s bracing to hear them in music from the Classical era. The performances were set down in two different venues and engineer Alix Ewald has produced excellent results. In both cases we get terrific clarity, plenty of detail and also a nice sense of the ambience of the hall, including just the right degree of reverberation at the end of movements.

This is a very stimulating contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations.

John Quinn

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