Notes and Editorial Reviews
for Violin and Orchestra
Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra
for Piano: Nos. 2, 14, 5, 15, 11, 17
Overture after Byron
Concert Overture No. 1 after Schiller,
Concert Overture No. 2,
String Quartet in a,
Piano Trio No. 4 in G,
String Quartet No. 5 in c,
Christian Arming, cond;
Liège Royal PO;
Tedi Papavrami (vn);
Clémentine Margaine (mez);
Emmanuelle Swiercz (pn);
Jacques Mercier, cond;
Lorraine Natl O;
EDICION SINGULARES 1014 (3 CDs: 193:00
Text and Translation)
Up until about 20 years ago, the name Théodore Gouvy would likely have elicited a shrug and a “who?” from even the professor with a Ph.D. in music history. That’s because this practically anonymous French composer, little recognized in his own lifetime, sank into such profound oblivion after his death that it was as if he had never existed. Then, in the 1990s, the small, independent French label K 617 devoted mainly to music of the Baroque, discovered Gouvy, and released four or five albums of his works, including a full-scale Requiem Mass; and ever since, Gouvy’s cause has been taken up by mainstream artists and labels, and his music has been making significant inroads among the music-loving, record-buying community.
Regular readers of
will be aware of a number of Gouvy releases, largely, but not exclusively, on CPO that have been reviewed in prior issues; and almost without exception those reviews have extolled the strengths and beauties of Gouvy’s music and expressed wonderment at how a composer of such worth could have vanished so completely from the music world’s collective consciousness.
The answer may be as simple as the fact that Gouvy, who was born into a French-speaking family in the Sarre region on the border between France and Prussia (now Saarbrücken, Germany), was more aesthetically attuned to the Classical-Romantic German symphonic, chamber, and choral music traditions practiced by Mendelssohn and Brahms than he was to the Paris opera culture. Thus, he was like a fish out of water in France and never fully accepted in Germany, where he lived the last third of his life. His chamber works did have an audience in Germany, Austria, England, Scandinavia, and Russia, where, according to his bio, such music mattered; but the French ignored him and the Germans remained suspicious of his French background. Moreover, he openly detested Wagner, which automatically insured his shunning by the pro-New Music School camp.
Gouvy lived a fairly long life. Born in the same year, 1819, as Clara Schumann, he died in 1898, outliving Brahms by a year. His life thus spanned the entirety of both the Austro-German and French Romantic periods, from the final years of Beethoven through Weber, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms on the one hand, and from Berlioz through Meyerbeer, Gounod, Bizet, César Franck, and well into the lives of Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Debussy on the other.
Gouvy’s considerable catalog of works—seven numbered symphonies, five piano trios, 11 string quartets, a number of string quintets, sextets, a septet, and an octet, sonatas and solo pieces for piano, numerous orchestral and large choral works, songs, and two failed operas—arguably make him the most important French composer between Berlioz and perhaps Debussy. Even Saint-Saëns, once dubbed the “French Mendelssohn,” must cede some of that title to Gouvy, especially when one considers Gouvy’s more Classically-refined style and form.
For most of the works on these three discs these are first recordings. As far as I can tell, only the Piano Trio No. 4 in a performance by Voces Intimae on Challenge Classics, and the Sinfonietta in a performance by Jacques Mercier and the German Radio Philharmonic on CPO, have previously appeared on disc; and that’s my segue into describing this very special and very elaborate collection.
Ediciones Singulares specializes in neglected works and the music of forgotten composers, and the label has devoted this Volume 1 in its
series to Théodore Gouvy. Contained between the covers of this 8-1/4 inch-tall, hardbound book, is an elegantly presented three-disc portrait, which includes a vast amount of useful musical and biographical information—100 pages worth—in French and English on the composer and the individual works, along with photographs, reproductions of letters and manuscripts, excerpts from the composer’s personal diary—e.g., “Since I wrote my opera, I’ve had nothing but trouble”—complete personnel rosters of the Liège and Lorraine orchestras, complete French text with English translation to
, and several thought-provoking essays. To add a final flourish to this luxurious release, Ediciones Singulares provides not one but two sewn-in silk bookmark ribbons, and, get this, stamps each set off the press with a production number; mine is “1160.”
I’m not going to give a detailed description of each of the works on these three CDs, other than to say there’s not a single one of them that will not captivate you with its breathtaking beauty. The
for violin and orchestra is styled in somewhat similar vein to some of Saint-Saëns’s lesser-known violin pieces. It’s tunefully rural in that easygoing sort of French folksong-y way that characterizes Bizet’s
music, and it’s sweetly, even chirpily played by soloist Tedi Papavrami.
, translated in the notes as “The Nun,” in 1875, shortly after completing two of his liturgically-based works, the Requiem and a
. Curiously, though, the text to
is rather at odds with its title, for it’s described as a secular cantata after a poem by Charles Hubert Millevoye, and it was written for famed mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. If the woman portrayed in these verses is indeed a nun, she needs to be doing some serious penance, for she seems to be pining away and longing for death over some lost lover. Listening to this gloriously beautiful extended dramatic setting for mezzo and orchestra, it’s hard to understand why Gouvy wasn’t successful in his two attempts at an opera. Clémentine Margaine is magnificent.
One wonders if Gouvy didn’t have Mendelssohn’s
Songs Without Words
in mind when he composed his
for solo piano. The keyboard figurations and flourishes are closer to Chopin than they are to Mendelssohn, but the melodies are pure song. I’m probably guilty of overusing the words “beautiful” and “gorgeous” in my reviews, but I don’t know what other adjectives to summon for a description of these brief salon gems, so winsomely and winningly played by pianist Emmanuelle Swiercz.
With his Byron-based
, and non-literary-based
overtures, Gouvy proves himself a master of the concert overture/tone poem/orchestral fantasy genre on a par with Berlioz, Dvo?ák, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky.
Gouvy’s chamber works—represented here by two string quartets and a piano trio—range in content and style from somewhere between Haydn to Spohr, Onslow, Conradin Kreutzer, and Mendelssohn, with one composer conspicuous by his absence: There’s not a trace of Beethoven.
If you’ve heretofore been hesitant to sample the music of Théodore Gouvy, I’d strongly encourage you to acquire this collection, which allows you to familiarize yourself with his music in a number of distinct genres. The performances are all really good, the recordings excellent, and the lavishly appointed book they come in a conversation piece unto itself.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Be the first to review this title