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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1 in E?; No. 2 in F
Jacques Mercier, cond; Saarbrücken RPO
CPO 777381 (63:23)
In 34:1, I ended a review of Gouvy’s Second Symphony,
with the plea “more Gouvy, please,” and here it is. That recording, on the Sterling label, featured Thomas Kalb conducting the Württemberg Philharmonic. At the time of the review, cpo,
already engaged in a complete run of Gouvy’s symphonies with Jacques Mercier and the Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic, had not yet gotten around to the Second Symphony, so there was no duplication. Now, with this latest release in the series, there is.
For those unfamiliar with the composer and who may have missed previous entries in these pages, let me recap the salient points of Gouvy’s life and career. Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819–98) was born on the border between two cultures, French and German. He grew up in a French-speaking family living in an Alsatian village in the Saare, which at the time of his birth was under Prussian control. Not until he was 32 was he able to attain French citizenship.
As a child, he showed no particular interest in or talent for music. But arriving in Paris in 1836 to study law, he met Adolphe Adam, an acquaintanceship that altered Gouvy’s course. Music studies in Paris at the conservatory and then in Berlin followed. The training he received in Germany predisposed Gouvy to instrumental music, a bias that did not stand him in good stead back in Paris, where the opera-crazed French took little note of orchestral and chamber music. Recognition and financial reward were hard to come by for a composer of symphonies and string quartets in a culture that valued opera above all else. So Gouvy spent the last 25 or so years of his life in Germany, where his music was more appreciated. Still, he remained relatively unknown to the general public during his lifetime and virtually disappeared off the radar after his death, though other composers familiar with Gouvy’s work—Brahms, Joachim, and Reinecke, for example—held him in high regard.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the French record label K617 resurrected Gouvy’s Requiem and a handful of his other works, that the composer began to gain some attention. Unfortunately, after releasing another four albums, K617 didn’t pursue what had begun to look like a long-range project to record even more of Gouvy’s music, but gratefully, cpo seems to have taken up the gauntlet.
Gouvy wrote nine symphonies, the first five of which were composed over the course of a dozen years between 1845 and 1857. Even in the earliest of them, which we have here, there is already a consummate mastery of form, motivic development, and orchestration, not to mention a keen ear for melodic and harmonic invention. A recurrent striding motive in the first movement of the E?-Major Symphony strongly resembles a similar thematic element that runs through Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. It’s impossible to say whether it’s an echo or an anticipation, for Schumann’s original version of the D-Minor Symphony dates from 1841, which would have come before Gouvy’s opus, while the revised version dates from 1851, which would have come after Gouvy’s work. In either case, there is no way to know if Gouvy heard Schumann’s earlier version of the score. What can be said with a degree of certainty is that Gouvy’s First Symphony is very much in the style of the Schumann-period German Romantics who played so important a role in his musical training and personal ethos.
It isn’t often that one is faced with two competing and equally fine performances of a virtually unknown work, but I must say that I’d have a very hard time choosing between this new cpo version of Gouvy’s Second Symphony and the Sterling recording. Kalb and Mercier play hopscotch with each other in terms of tempos, Kalb taking the first, third, and fourth movements slightly faster, while Mercier is more animated in the second-movement scherzo. In the end, less than a minute separates the two readings. In matters of technical execution and ensemble balance, I’d have to say the two orchestras are equally matched, playing to a draw. The one decided advantage Mercier has over Kalb is cpo’s brighter and more forward recording, which accords Gouvy’s score fuller body and greater presence.
If Gouvy speaks the language of Schumann and, to some extent, Mendelssohn, in his First Symphony, he seems to be channeling Beethoven in his Second. Thematic material is more motivic in orientation and phrase structures are shorter and more rhythmically sprung, lending the music a forward momentum and sense of urgency. The scherzo movement too now takes on a more serious cast, sounding less like a Mendelssohn frolic and more like a driven Beethoven scherzo. The gorgeous Andante, opening to lyrical strains punctuated by tender wind sighs, soon darkens to funereal march tones, before returning to its opening state of radiant bliss. The concluding movement has about it a bit of the saltarello character of the finale to Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, but Gouvy doesn’t explore or exploit the motoric rhythm to the extent Mendelssohn does, preferring instead to interrupt and contrast it with more relaxed passages. The symphony ends, however, in a blaze of glory.
Perusing my collection of Gouvy CDs, I am astonished to find as many as 10 albums on the shelf, spread between K617, Orfeo, and cpo, and covering several genres of his output, from his Requiem to string quartets and quintets, piano trios, violin sonatas, symphonies, and even songs. So it would appear that Gouvy is no longer as unfamiliar or neglected as he was just a dozen or so years ago.
Here is a composer well worth exploring for those who appreciate really well-made and beautiful orchestral and chamber music in a mid 19th-century, post-Mendelssohn, pre-Brahms, hovering-around-Schumann cast. And if you prefer starting at the beginning rather than somewhere in the middle—cpo has previously recorded Gouvy’s Third, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies—the current release offering the First and Second is the perfect place to start. Performances and recording are everything one could possibly desire.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 9 by Louis Théodore Gouvy
Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Venue: Funkhaus Halberg, Musikstudio 1, Saarbrü
Length: 30 Minutes 27 Secs.
Symphony No. 2 in F major, Op. 12 by Louis Théodore Gouvy
Venue: Funkhaus Halberg, Musikstudio 1, Saarbrü
Length: 31 Minutes 30 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Thoroughly Enjoyable April 1, 2013
By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews
"Theodore Gouvy hailed from the French /German border city of Saarbrucken, and one of the interesting questions which arises while listening to this very excellent recording is to which musical tradition, French or German, does Gouvy belong? Symphony # 1 is a light, carefree exercise in orchestral color in the manner of the most sassy of French works, yet it is 'classically' structured like the mainstream German symphonies. Symphony # 2, in a different key, has the same general characteristics; but above all, there is great melody and a 'relaxed dynamism' (how's that for an oxymoronic twist!)in both symphonies' overall ambience. As in the other Gouvy recordings offered by CPO, the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern gives a world class performance, with CPO contributing its customary state-of-the-art sound. Theodore Gouvy's music is aesthetically satisfying in all respects and is certain to delight the first time listener. This outstanding CPO disk gets a high recommendation in my book!"