THÉODORE GOUVY: Cantata, Symphonic Works, and Chamber Music = Palazzetto Bru Zane, Ediciones Singulares

THÉODORE GOUVY: Cantata, Symphonic Works, and Chamber Music – Orch. royal philharmonique de Liege, Orch. national de Lorraine. Conductors: Christian Arming, and Jacques Mercier/ Quatuor Cambini-Paris/ Quatuor Parisii/ Trio Arcadis – Palazzetto Bru Zane, Ediciones Singulares (Distr. by Naxos) (3-CDs) ****½:

A religious cantata of such dramatic sweep that it has been called “an opera for one person.” (I would say “oratorio for one chorister”). A “sinfonietta” that’s more of a classical symphony, both in length and structure. Engaging chamber music with a low tiring speed. Tuneful piano miniatures ideally suited for the burgeoning music-box-disc industry. Welcome to the forgotten work of Théodore Gouvy (1819–1898), perhaps the nineteenth century’s most unfairly neglected composer. My eighth edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians doesn’t even mention him.

The French publisher Palazzetto Bru Zane has released Ediciones Singulares, a series dedicated to single composers, such as Antonio Sacchini, Théodore Gouvy, and the equally obscure Gustave Charpentier and Max d’Ollone. So who was Gouvy? He was born in wealth, in what became the Sarre, a region on the France-Prussia border (now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany). Unluckily for him, this region fell under Prussian control shortly before his birth, so he could not attain French citizenship until he reached 32. This had a profound effect on his creative development and music, which sometimes reflects the lean muscularity of the German style in his overtures, and a mannered French lyricism in his piano pieces and chamber music. Of course, there’s much more to his music. There’s also the mysterious tones that emanate from works like his String Quartet No. 5, with its unpredictable (but not jarring) turns in minor key themes. He was called “the French Mendelssohn” because of his colorful orchestral textures.  His dashing Overture to La Giaour showed that he also understood Byronism, which the poet Alfred de Musset, his contemporary, had done much to popularize in France.

Gouvy is a skilled melodist and shorter pieces like his piano serenades may rarely bore you, despite their lack of Chopinesque pathos. Later he did delve deeper into the spirit of la Belle Epoque through his string quartets and nine formal symphonies (none of which are in this collection, unfortunately). I think these pieces have as much charm, drama, and appeal as those of more well-known French composers of his day, like César Franck (1822–1890) and Ernest Chausson (1855–1899). To his discredit, he was sometimes reluctant to take creative risks and as a result, some themes reflect a cautious conservatism.  He may not be worth stacking your shelves with, as more pieces are revealed. (I would like to obtain a DVD of his opera Le Cid, however–if it’s ever released in my lifetime.) But this hard-cover book-with-CDs, filled with informative essays about the composer’s life, is well worth tucking next to your edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians.

DISC 1 =
    Sinfonietta 
    Fantaisie pastorale for violin & orchestra
    La Religieuse
    Sérénades
   
DISC 2 =
    Le Giaour
    Jeanne d’Arc
    Le Festival
    String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 56 No. 2
   
DISC3
    Piano Trio No. 4 in G Major, Op. 22
    String Quartet No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 68

—Peter Bates

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