“De la revolution à l’empire”: François-Joseph Gossec (Marche lugubre, Symphonie à 17 parties), Giovanni Paisiello (Musique funèbre pour la mort du general Hoche, Marche du Premier Consul), Jean-François Le Sueur (Marche du sacre de Napoléon 1er), Etienne Méhul (Symphonie No. 2). Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Concervatoire, Georges Tzipine, Association des Concerts de Chambre de Paris, Fernand Oubradous (in Méhul). EMI Studio CDM 7 69830 2 (1988), barcode 077776983028
Recorded 12-13 October 1954 (Tzipine), 16 May 1957 (Oubradous), Salle de la Mutualité, Paris
Music of the French Revolution played on inauthentic instruments and in inauthentic editions
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 13 January 2013
When I hear (rarely) old recordings of Haendel operas, from the 1950s or 1960s, I always wonder how music lovers could have believed in it – I mean, how the thick and overblown orchestral textures, the ponderous tempos, the heavy wagnerian voices lacking the proper style and the required virtuosity could have convinced anybody about the beauties of the music and the genius of the composer. And I marvel that some believers were convinced enough that they kept the flame alive, for better interpretive times to come.
There’s something of that with this compilation of recordings made in the 1950s by French EMI of composers from the French Revolution. Mind you, it isn’t nearly as distorted as those early Haendels, and nonetheless, it seems here that the flame didn’t catch, and Gossec, Méhul and Le Sueur (or Lesueur) remain almost as rarely performed and recorded now as back then. Fortunately the sheer passing of time – more than half a century! – has allowed for a small process of accumulation, and new and better recordings did eventually trickle along.
The symphonies of Gossec and Méhul are the main offerings, and would have made fine companions on LP, although the two recordings were made independently, by different orchestras and conductors: Gossec’s Symphonie à 17 parties – his last symphony, from 1807 – by George Tzipine conducting the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in October 1954, part of a program which included the other processional pieces gathered on the disc as well as Johann Christoph
Vogel’s Demophon-Overture (2 LP-set Columbia FCX 383-84 “Musiques impériales”), and Méhul’s 2nd Symphony by Fernand Oubradous at the helm of the “Association des Concerts de Chambre de Paris” in May 1957 (originally paired with works of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer and Simon Le Duc on Pathé Marconi DTX 249).
Tzipine’s Gossec is powerful and not without pathos in some movements (Menuet), but it is also overblown and heavy, lacking the kind of bubbling zest and spirit Concerto Köln brings to the outer movement and Menuet, or their galant elegance and lightness of poise in the Larghetto, as well as their variety of instrumental colors and of dynamic contrasts (Capriccio 67 073). The best I can say in its favor is that, if I heard it without any comparative reference, I think I’d find it enjoyable, and would hear its sweep, its energy, its passion, its humor, its liveliness (the finale in particular comes out as a wonderfully spirited and boisterous movement), and it would make me want to hear more Gossec. Well, unfortunately, it seems that back then nobody thought that way, and Tzipine’s LP heralded no signicant Gossec revival. The same saddening comment can be made with Méhul’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major under Oubradous. Apparently, back in 1957 when it first came out, nobody heard or was interested in how close it was, in style AND quality, to Beethoven’s first two symphonies, and displaying not just good craftsmanship, but some wonderful touches of genius too. One had to wait another 30 years, and the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, for modern recordings to appear. Among these, the most sigificant were those of Michel Swierczewski on Nimbus, based on “Urtext” editions but interpretively heavy-handed, and in fact, in the 2nd Symphony, very similar to Oubradous, but in stereo (Nimbus NI 5184/5, barcodes 083603518424, 0710357518423) and those of Marc Minkowski (only Symphonies Nr. 1 & 2, Erato Musifrance 2292-45026-2, barcode 022924502620), on period-instruments and played with Minkowski’s customary energy and zest, but paradoxically (and lazily) based on Oubradous’ inauthentic editions. Swierczewski remains indispensable for offering all four of Méhul’s symphonies, but interpretively Minkowski is much preferable. Sadly again, those recordings heralded no significant Méhul revival. In another 30 years, maybe?
Of the other pieces contained on the disc, the two funeral marches are great. We are not told whose edition of Gossec’s Marche lugubre is played, and it is certainly not authentic – the original is for winds and percussion (it was recorded in October 1988 by Jean-Claude Malgoire on “Chantons La Revolution“, an otherwise flawed recital of music from the Revolution era, CBS CDCBS 45607, and in February 1989 by John Wallace on Nimbus NI 5175, barcodes 083603517526, 0710357517525, aptly paired with Berlioz’ Symphonie funèbre), this one has strings, which makes it sound more like music Honegger might have written for a film of Abel Gance than like music Gossec would have written to accompany the translation of the ashes of Mirabeau (April 4, 1791) or the remains of Voltaire’s body (July 11, 1791) to the Pantheon Church, but nonetheless it is powerful and impressive. Same comments apply with Paisiello’s “Funeral Music for the Death of General Hoche” – the body of strings of the version played here does not seem likely to be part of anything that could have been played on the occasion and outdoors. But as Tzipine plays it, and lasting 10-minutes, it sounds like slow funeral movement of a full-blown symphony, and is quite effective that way, to make one regret that Paisiello didn’t indeed compose the full work. The two other marches, written by Paisiello and Lesueur to celebrate Napoleon on various occasions (and given here also in “inauthentic” editions), seem to indicate that the undertaker of the French Revolution liked his music to be grandiose, bombastic, hollow – and short. But then, comparing Tzipine’s March of Paisiello and the same performed on what seems to be a more authentic wind band conducted by Lucien Mora on Cybelia CY 825 “Musiques de la Révolution française” (barcodes 3361800008250, 5011755009021), much of the trudging solemnity and bombast is a matter of edition and interpretation (the original of Le Sueur’s March and other music for Napoleon’s coronation has also been recorded by Koch Schwann, 3-1208-2 H1, barcode 099923120827, and apparently there is quite a following for that kind of music – one of the great perks of being an autocrat is getting so many admirers).
A document on the history of recording and interpretation, then.