Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (SACD)

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Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier

After winning the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand in 1839 and spending two years in Rome, Gounod should have gone on to study in Germany, but he managed in 1842 to persuade the authorities that he should remain in Rome to work on a symphony.

In 1843 he visited Mendelssohn who (while trying to dissuade him from wasting his time on Goethe’s Faust!) urged him to write another symphony. We do not know how much of the First Symphony Gounod had completed by then, but it is not surprising that Mendelssohn figures as one of the key influences on both symphonies. After performances of individual movements in 1855, premieres were given of the First on 4 March that year and of the Second on 13 February 1856.

Yan Pascal Tortelier and his Iceland Symphony Orchestra demonstrate outstanding precision and musicality in these unjustly neglected works.

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Charles-François Gounod (1818-1893):

Symphony No. 1 in D major

Symphony No. 2 in E flat major

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A delightful discovery from a French master



Charles-François Gounod (1818-1893) is remembered as a composer of masses, motets and operas. He wrote thirteen operas, one of which was unfinished. His big hit was his third opera Faust, written in 1859, but it is less well known that he composed two symphonies in 1855 and 1856 respectively. When the opening chord of Gounod's Symphony No. 1 lands, the listener might be forgiven for thinking it's Georges Bizet's Symphony in C - a work that lay neglected for a century but is now popular and often played. In fact, the influence went the other way: the 18-year-old Bizet was Gounod's pupil, and made a piano reduction of his teacher's symphony before starting on his own.

In a way it's a pity Gounod neglected absolute music. Very few of his operas are performed today, and these two symphonies are delightful. Classical in style, each has four movements and conveys an overall mood of joyfulness. Haydn seems to be the model for No. 1, especially in the third movement, which is a minuet and trio, and in the finale's vivacious, scurrying strings.

There is more of Beethoven and Mendelssohn (at their lightest) in the Symphony No. 2 in E flat. Again the Scherzo and its trio reveal the model: in this movement, it is Beethoven's 7th. Yet Gounod's individual traits are evident as well: a feel for catchy melody and a light, French touch in the orchestration. The finale to No. 2 points the way to French ballet scores of later in the century (including the composer's own ballet music from Faust) through its combination of liveliness and delicacy.

In Yan Pascal Tortelier's experienced hands, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra plays deftly, particularly the strings and woodwind sections (who do most of the work). I would have preferred a hard stick for the timpani, which sound indistinct in the tuttis, but the recording generally is clear. There have been few previous recordings of these symphonies. A fine version exists, zestfully played by the Toulouse National Orchestra conducted by Michel Plasson and recorded by EMI, but that dates from forty years ago. Kudos to Chandos for returning this enjoyable music to our notice. 4.5 STARS