Belgian composer Paul Gilson is a missing link in French literature, a key transitional figure between French post-romanticism, as exemplified by Vincent d'Indy, and impressionism, a trend espoused in terms of style by Claude Debussy, though he hated the term. Proud owner of the 1889 Belgian Prix de Rome for his cantata Sinaïl, Gilson managed to win this distinction despite the fact that he was an autodidact, and in a long career that lasted until World War II, Gilson produced more than 500 compositions. His work, however, remains practically unknown outside of Belgium, where his symphonic poem La mer (1892) has never dropped out of the concert repertory; during Gilson's lifetime it was heard everywhere. This Klara disc, co-branded with Dutch label Etcetera, contains that work, an Andante & Scherzo for cello and orchestra, and a charming ballet suite drawn from La Captive (1900).
The Klara disc features Martyn Brabbins and the Flemish Radio Orchestra and Chorus, and this is only the third time in the CD era that Gilson's La mer has been recorded; earlier readings were on the Discover International and Marco Polo labels. While both have their merits and faults, neither of the earlier recordings has the terrific sound of the Klara release, recorded in 2006. Brabbins clearly likes this music, and there isn't any reason why a conductor shouldn't, for Gilson exploits strong melodic themes and molds them through a widescreen, Technicolor orchestration. While the music of Wagner was an inescapable influence on d'Indy, Gilson, and Debussy, the further example of Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russians affected only the latter two. This is felt more strongly in the music for The Captive than in La mer. The "Chants et danses de matelots" is squarely in the camp of d'Indy and other late French romantics, a style forgotten outside of France apart from some works of Franck, Lalo, Chabrier, and Chausson. However, the final movement, "La Tempête," looks forward rather than backward.
Many advanced classical listeners reach a point where one might think they have exhausted the reservoir of the best romantic orchestral symphonies. While the jury is still out on the value of Gilson's repertoire as a whole -- there is so much that it will take a long time to achieve a true understanding of it -- La mer is one major romantic work that is more than good enough to satisfy those who wonder "What's next?" Moreover, this Klara recording under Brabbins jumps to the top of what is yet a very small heap.