LOUIS THÉODORE GOUVY: Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 9; Symphony No. 2 in F Major, Op. 12 – German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern / Jacques Mercier – CPO 777 381-2 [Distr. by Naxos], 63:23 ****:
Life being short, despite the very good things I’ve read about Théodore Gouvy, this is my first exposure to his music. And while I’m not ready to sign up for the Gouvy Fan Club yet, I’m ready and willing to hear more. And more.
Being born in the Sarre, a region in Alsace that fell under Prussian control after the Conference of Vienna, Gouvy was almost a man without a country; he didn’t achieve full French citizenship until he was thirty-two. Nonetheless, rejecting a career as a lawyer, he settled in Paris intent on being a composer, forced to study privately because he was rejected by the Conservatoire.
Strike Two: in a France inebriated with opera and ballet, Gouvy decided to dedicate himself to absolute music. Strike Three: orchestral music in France was represented almost solely by the Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire under the direction of one François Habeneck, who favored the work of dead Germans and Austrians such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber. It took a full twenty years after the first appearance of Gouvy’s Symphony No. 1 for the Societé to perform his works. In the meantime, Gouvy was compelled to have his symphony performed at his own expense in 1846. A performance by professional forces the next year excited the enthusiasm of the press; of composer Stephen Heller; and, more importantly, of Hector Berlioz, who opined “that a musician of the importance of Monsieur Gouvy should still be so little known in Paris, when the public’s ears are persistently vexed by the buzz of so many swarming bluebottles, is enough to fill with consternation and outrage those innocent spirits, who still believe in reason and in the justice of our musical customs.” Pretty strong advocacy from someone who knew a thing or two about contemporary French music. And indeed, Gouvy’s symphonies are remarkable specimens, given the climate in France at the time.
His success in thr French capital was a limited one, but it encouraged the composer to go abroad with his next symphony, namely to Leipzig, where the Second Symphony was performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in January of 1850. The Leipzig press was favorably impressed, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung offering an astute assessment of Gouvy’s art: “The composer, a Frenchman by birth, was incapable of denying his roots in his work. But besides the athletic and capricious spirit in his music, we were also struck by a certain German solemnity and thoughtfulness. His symphony therefore received loud and undivided applause.” Gouvy continued to be a favorite with Gewandhaus audiences, his symphonies continuing to be the most frequently performed among those by foreign composers.
German solemnity: both symphonies have slow movements with an air of serene contemplativeness, plus minor-key scherzos that have as much drama about them as playfulness. The First Symphony’s opening movement, with its driving dotted rhythms, sounds very much like the Schumann of the Spring Symphony and D-minor Symphony, which if Gouvy knew it at all (highly doubtful) would be in its earlier incarnation as Schumann’s Second Symphony, before it was reworked as Symphony No. 4, Op. 120, in 1851. In any case, Gouvy’s orchestration is more colorful than Schumann’s, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The last movement of Gouvy’s symphony features two contrasting themes, the first jubilant and even fiery, the second more lyrical, song-like. The first theme dominates the movement until the coda, where the second theme returns in an expansive, radiant treatment like the apotheosis in a ballet score. Memorable. In fact, a certain balletic quality is what gives Gouvy’s music some of that French capriciousness noted by the reviewer in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. I’m not sure if Gounod and his young admirer Georges Bizet knew the work of Gouvy when they penned their symphonies (two for Gounod, one, the famous Symphony in C Major, for Bizet) in 1855, but the same balletic quality informs their work.
Gouvy’s Second Symphony is a touch lighter in spirit and sounds more like Mendelssohn. Again, the orchestration is deft, and that same dancelike quality pervades the score. I prefer the punchier, more athletic rhythms of the First Symphony, but both works leave me wanting to hear more.
We probably won’t have a rival recording of these works anytime soon, and I expect we won’t need one since the current performances are vital, assured, winning in every way. CPO’s sound is as usual fine, with an excellent sense of stereo spread and depth. However, recording levels seem a tad low, so turn up the volume to enjoy the contributions of the spirited brass and timpani, which otherwise sound somewhat recessed. I highly recommend this disc and am sure it will inspire further excursions into the recorded works of M. Gouvy.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich