Sunday 30 November 2014

Oleg Caetani draws taut playing from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana revealing the best of Gounod’s symphonies on a new release form CPO

Charles Gounod (1818-1893)  was born in Paris and studied privately with Antoine Reicha (1770-1836) before attending the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers were Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) (counterpoint) and Jean-François Le Seuer (1760-1837)  (composition). In 1839 he visited Rome after winning the Prix de Rome where he was much influenced by 16th century polyphonic music. On his return to Paris he took a post as a church organist and even considered joining the priesthood.

In 1855 came his popular Messe solennelle de Ste Cécile followed by seven operas, the first two failures. It is his opera Faust (1859) that he is most remembered for. In 1870 he took refuge in England from the Franco-Prussian War where he stayed for some four years becoming the first conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, also writing oratorios for Birmingham.

Gounod’s two completed attempts at symphonies date from 1855. The Allegretto and Scherzo of his Symphony No.1 in D major was first performed in February 1855 by Jules Pasdeloup and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1855, the complete work being performed by François Seghers with his Société Sainte-Cécile orchestra that same year receiving an even more enthusiastic reception.

April 1855 saw the first performance of the Larghetto of his Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, the complete work being performed in February 1856.

These two symphonies have been brought together with the fragments of a projected Symphony No.3 in C major sketched out around 1890-92. They are performed on this new release from CPO by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana  conducted by Oleg Caetani

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There is a dynamic opening to the Allegro molto of Gounod’s Symphony No.1 in D major before the orchestra immediately rushes forward in this light textured movement, good natured with occasional little orchestral outbursts to jog the listener’s attention. The Allegretto moderato has a gentle, nicely sprung rhythm with a rather Mendelssohnian melody and certainly just as lightly scored. Caetani and his players find much lovely detail.

There is a nicely poised Scherzo. Non troppo presto – Trio with an attractive rhythmic buoyancy and a lovely trio section featuring the woodwind. The music gains a real forward flow from the strings and often has a Haydnesque feel with its peasant dance rhythm. There is a slow, flowing opening to the Finale Adagio – Allegro Vivace that soon rises before leading into the allegro with many lovely twists and turns, again beautifully scored and full of energy.  

Oleg Caetani and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana find much interest in this rather lightweight though thoroughly attractive work.

The Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1855) opens with a dramatically pointed up Adagio that gives way to a rather earnest Allegro agitato that does have many lighter moments. Again Caetani and his orchestra bring out every dynamic and detail in a movement that certainly has more gravitas than Gounod’s first venture into symphonic form. He brings a number of very attractive instrumental ideas and overall a very fine forward thrust to the music. The Larghetto (non troppo) has a gentle flowing opening as the music slowly spreads out soon revealing a fine tune, a glowing melody with lovely individual woodwind contributions. Centrally there is a rather playful passage making this a particularly attractive movement.

Scherzo. Allegro molto – Trio brings more attractive ideas and a surging string theme offset by woodwind before the music pushes; Mendelssohnian but really rather attractive with a lovely, gentle yet rhythmic, trio section. A nimble, fast moving Finale. Allegro, leggiero assai theme pushes forward, soon increasing in dynamics with some lovely quiet, fluent writing, full of good humour though in danger of flagging a little towards the coda.

The fragments of Symphony No.3 in C major receive their first recording here, with firstly an Andante molto maestoso – Moderato, slow and rather serious before rising up dramatically and leading into a decisive theme that moves ahead confidently with hints of Beethoven before frustratingly ending suddenly, Gounod having put down his pen. A gentle flowing Andante follows with some lovely details from the woodwind before heading to its subdued coda.

This is a tantalising glimpse of what the older Gounod might have achieved in symphonic form.

Oleg Caetani draws taut playing from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana revealing the best of these scores. The second symphony is the one I am most likely to return to though both are full of attractive ideas and beautifully scored.

Caetani and his orchestra receive a first rate recording and there are informative booklet notes.

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