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Theodore Gouvy: Symphony No. 4; Symphonie Breve; Fantaisie Symphonique

Gouvy / Deutsche Radio Philharmonie / Mercier
Release Date: 03/26/2013 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777382   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Louis Théodore Gouvy
Conductor:  Jacques Mercier
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 3 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

You can tell from the opening bars of Gouvy’s D minor Fourth Symphony that this is the real deal: urgent, compellingly scored, and thematically distinctive. Yes, the idiom is conservative for the 1850s/60s, but good music is good music, and this may well be great music. After a stormy opening movement, the scherzo trips along like a swift stream, unleashing a flood of variations on its basic material. The slow movement, a brief Larghetto, is touchingly lyrical, and the muscular finale betrays none of the formal problems that so often beset romantic symphonies. The whole work is a joy from start to finish.

The Symphonie brève is just that, only 14 minutes long, but its form is unusual: a theme and five variations linked
Read more without pause to a rambunctious rondo. Again, the melodic material is quite distinctive, with the principal theme of the variations related to that of the ensuing rondo, justifying the music’s designation as “symphonic”. Gouvy’s Fantaisie Symphonique is a three-movement symphony in miniature, and like the Fourth Symphony it’s extremely atmospheric and dramatic, dwelling mainly in minor keys. Harmonically, this late work shows a bit of an advance over the symphony, but the truth is that such things hardly matter when the compositional skill on offer is so distinguished.

As with other releases in this series, Jacques Mercier conducts the music with sovereign mastery–these are exciting performances, very well played, that prove conclusively that “conservative” does not mean “inhibited”. The engineering also is bold and vivid, save for some performance noises (valves clicking and such) that suggest microphone placement perhaps a touch too close. Never mind. This is great, indeed essential, stuff.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


In 33:6 and 35:6 I had the great privilege of reviewing two previous CDs in this ongoing cycle of the complete symphonies of Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819–98). Those respectively comprised the Symphony No. 6 and a Sinfonietta in D on the first disc, and Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 on the second; Barry Brenesal positively reviewed the first CD in the series, containing Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, back in 33: 2, and Jerry Dubins placed that on his 2009 Want List.

Since the biographical details of Gouvy’s life and career have been covered in detail in those past reviews, I will not rehearse them again here. Suffice it to say that with each new release, my conviction that we are witnessing the resurrection of the music of an unjustly neglected master only increases, with the present symphony being a case in point. After the symphony’s successful premiere in January 1856 by an ad hoc student orchestra in Paris, the fastidious composer revised it extensively over the next decade, including replacing the original third and fourth movements, before finally allowing it to be published. While Mendelssohn remains the dominant influence here, as he did in much of Gouvy’s earlier music, the stormy opening movement brings to mind the Fourth Symphony of Schumann. (The booklet notes describe the work as “thoroughly tragic and gloomy,” but it is no more so than the so-called “Tragic” Symphony of Schubert.) The second movement scherzo adds something of the peculiar wit of Berlioz, whereas the final two movements are more purely Mendelssohnian in character, reflecting the “Scotch” and “Italian” symphonies as models. Throughout, however, Gouvy’s voice is distinctively his own; this is no mere epigone, but an original musical thinker with a great deal of value to say; his thematic material is inventive and immediately engaging, his command of symphonic form immaculate, and his orchestration piquant and effective. This is truly great music that cries out for inclusion in the standard repertoire.

The Symphonie brève of 1873 is a lighter work of less than 15 minutes’ duration. Scored for a reduced orchestra with four horns but only one trumpet and no trombones or tuba, it consists of a brief introduction, five variations, and an extended rondo finale. It is an ingratiating work, though not as memorable as the symphonies. The Fantasie symphonique , unpublished and unperformed until now, is of unknown date; it is known to be from the composer’s later years, when he had taken up residence in Hombourg-Haut with his beloved sister-in-law, Henriette Gouvy. Cast in three movements and lasting a bit over 20 minutes, it is a rather unusual work, with two slow movements marked Grave-Moderato and Adagio preceding a relatively quicker Alla breve finale. As in other works from the composer’s later years, the kinship of musical vocabulary here is primarily with Schumann, Bruch, and Brahms rather than Mendelssohn; in particular the first two movements bring to my mind the first movement of Bruch’s now little known Symphony No. 2 and orchestral passages from Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri . More than the Symphony No. 4, this is music that somewhat deserves the descriptors “tragic and gloomy,” having throughout a certain grim, almost gritty, determination to weather Fortune’s adversities. One suspects that Gouvy recognized that such a piece would not be marketable and thus never submitted it for performance or publication.

As before, conductor Jacques Mercier and his orchestra are fine advocates for these works; in this case, however, there are occasional places (e.g., the finale of the symphony) where a slightly quicker tempo and more pointed phrasing would have reaped greater interpretive rewards. As always, CPO provides excellent recorded sound and copious booklet notes. Now only the Symphony No. 7 and whatever supplemental orchestral works may fill out that disc remain to be issued, and I for one await that consummation of this series impatiently. This release, like its predecessors, is highly recommended.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

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Works on This Recording

Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 25 by Louis Théodore Gouvy
Conductor:  Jacques Mercier
Venue:  Congresshalle Saarbrücken 
Length: 26 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Symphonie brève in G minor, Op. 58 by Louis Théodore Gouvy
Conductor:  Jacques Mercier
Period: Romantic 
Venue:  Congresshalle Saarbrücken 
Length: 13 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Fantasie symphonique by Louis Théodore Gouvy
Conductor:  Jacques Mercier
Period: Romantic 
Venue:  Congresshalle Saarbrücken 
Length: 21 Minutes 5 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Excellent French-German Orchestral Music August 1, 2013 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "Theodore Gouvy hailed from the Saarland, the region on the French-German border which has figured so prominently in the political and military confrontations between these two countries in the last few centuries. Caught between the similarly competing cultural and artistic foundations of both Germany and France, Gouvy's influence and reputation inevitably suffered some decline in the late 19th century, especially after the Franco-Prussian War, with World War 1's impact further burying Gouvy as a name widely known. Thus, it is noteworthy (and perhaps somewhat ironic) that CPO (the fine German label) and a truly excellent German orchestra have offered us a refreshing and overdue look at this undeservedly overlooked composer. The 'Frenchness' to which I refer is clearly evident in the light-hearted and energetic Symphony #4, dating from the 1850's. This is a thoroughly enjoyable symphony with lightness of texture, vigorous rythms, and a structure that conforms to the Romantic Era of the mid-19th century. The two other compositions present some different aspects of Gouvy's compositional style. The Symphony Breve, at only 14 minutes in length, consists of 6 short sections of variations, plus a concluding Rondo- not much time to develop sophisticated thematic statements, for sure. Nevertheless, this work successfully registers with the listener with its light-hearted romp through some rapidly shifting musical passages. Finally, the 3-movement Fantaisie Symphonique, at 21 minutes, is an interesting and worthwhile musical statement, although it is noticeably subdued and somber in its orientation, compared with the previous works. The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern plays all these compositions with commitment and brilliance, and of course CPO's sonic qualities on this disk are outstanding. This music is pleasant, generally relaxed, and not excessively demanding, but it is a pleasure to hear. If you are not already familiar with this somewhat obscure 'French-German' composer, this disk can be recommended for some fine listening." Report Abuse
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