Charles Gounod: The Symphonies

Gordan Nikolic / Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

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Charles Gounod: The Symphonies Review

by James Manheim

Listening to symphonies by Charles Gounod might sound like about as much fun as listening to a string quartet by Wagner, but these two works were popular in France in the middle 19th century. This was a time when symphonies were rarely played in opera-made France, and those by French composers were even rarer. The two symphonies are quite different from one another, but they were both composed in 1855 and 1856; they thus precede most of Gounod's famous operas, but are contemporaneous with the St. Cecilia Mass. They appear to have been inspired by Gounod's acquaintance with the German symphonic tradition during his Prix de Rome trip, when he met Fanny Hensel and through her became acquainted with the music of Mendelssohn and his illustrious forebears. The two works thus have something of the study about them, the first one directed toward Haydn and Mozart (or maybe the very early string symphonies of Mendelssohn), the second toward Mendelssohn himself. But what's appealing is that Gounod's personality comes through, especially in the Symphony No. 2 in E flat major. There's a certain Gallic lightness throughout, but the formally free second symphony has the virtue, or flaw depending on point of view, of sounding like a symphony written by an opera composer. The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Gordan Nikolic catches the lightness, the definite Gounod quality of the music, and this is a hard-to-find repertoire oddity that will be welcomed by Gounod lovers.

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