GOUVY: Symphony No. 3, op. 20 in C. Symphony No. 5, op. 30 in B-flat.
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Jacques Mercier.
CPO 777 379-2 (F) (DDD) TT: 55:23.

The history of the French symphony before the Saint-Saëns cycle is rather fitful, with what amount to "sports" by Bizet and Gounod. Berlioz's examples are idiosyncratic, conscious attempts to develop the symphony outside the classical line. However, musical life in France centered in Paris. Paris went mad for opera and ballet and considered the symphony both too academic and too "German." Louis Théodore Gouvy, born in the Alsace-Lorraine region, stubbornly concentrated on writing symphonies and instrumental music, although he composed one opera on the story of El Cid. Fortunately, coming from a very wealthy family, he didn't have to rely on music to live. Indeed, he paid for performances of his works in Paris. Germany, however, welcomed his music, especially Leipzig and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He travelled there frequently and thoroughly bilingual in French and German, became friendly with the Mendelssohn family.

Listening to these two scores, I don't find any of that surprising. Both symphonies move lightly and sprightly in a Mendelssohnian way. The Third's finale, for example, uses a driving rhythm right out of the opening of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony as well as of the tarantella from that same work. Although Gouvy's symphonies don't reach Mendelssohn's level, they nevertheless are attractive. There's little innovation, except in instrumentation, and you can't consider them milestones in the history of the symphony. However, they have the happy ability to please. If you (like me) enjoy the Bizet symphony, although it possesses a more individual profile, you might take pleasure in these. I happen to like the Third more than the Fifth for those reasons. It's certainly the more Mendelssohnian of the two.

Mercier and his band do well, though not spectacularly well, in conveying the spirit of the two scores. Everything hangs together. You get some of the works' vivacity, but you can easily imagine more. However, other companies are unlikely to issue competing versions.

S.G.S. (April 2010)