Gossec: Symphonies. Concerto Köln. Capriccio 67 073 (2003), Capriccio C8019 “Encore” (2017)

Gossec: Symphonies (Sinfonia a più stromenti op. 6-3, Symphonie à grand orchestre “La Chasse” op. 13-4, Symphonie concertante du ballet “Mirza”, Symphonie à 17 parties). Capriccio 67 073 (2003), bc 4006408670735, also 845221005058







 Capriccio C8019 “Encore” (2017), bc 845221080192








Recorded 13-16 January 2003 at DeutschlandRadio, Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Cologne.

Don’t expect here “Sturm und Drang”, pre-romantic turmoil. But within his own, more playful and galant style, Gossec offers many pleasures
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 31 May 2012, modified 9 September 2017

Again Concerto Köln must be thanked and lauded for their indefatigable exploration of “minor” and other forgotten and obscure composers from the era of Haydn-to-Beethoven. They had already tackled Gossec in 1989, in a collection (already on Capriccio, 10 280) of symphonies related (more or less) to the French Revolution. In the meanwhile they switched to Teldec, and this new, all-Gossec CD, recorded in January 2003, after their Mozart album in 2002 (Capriccio 67 014, bc 4006408670148. SACD Capriccio 71 003, bc 4006408710035, 2003), signaled their return to Capriccio.

Although known today only by the amateurs of the off-the-beaten-track, François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was one of the most famous composers of his time in France, even more during the Revolutionary era than under the two last kings of France. Though born in a village now in Belgium and trained in Antwerp, he started his career in music in Paris in 1751, invited by Rameau, in the orchestra of the Fermier Général (Tax Collector) and Rameau protector La Pouplinière, where he played not only under Rameau but also under Rameau’s successor, the famous Mannheim composer Johann Stamitz (the Stamitz father), before succeeding them as conductor of the orchestra, at the youthful age of 21. His Requiem (Messe des Morts) prompted his compositional breakthrough and access to fame in 1760. It is possibly from Stamitz that he took the idea of the Symphony, and he published his first collection of six, opus 3, in 1756, predating Haydn’s first by at least a year (when exactly that one was composed is still disputed, but at any rate it wasn’t before 1757. Truth is, Concerto Köln’s 1989 CD featured a Symphony by the even more obscure François Martin, part of a collection published as early as 1751. But Gossec was also the first to conduct a Haydn symphony in France, in 1773, at the “Concert des Amateurs” – a concert organization which he had founded four years before – although the two never met. On the other hand his career both in the opera-comique and in the opera was thwarted by the universal success of, respectively, Grétry and Gluck (nonetheless Gossec accepted the role of a faithful helper and collaborator of Gluck at the opera), Despite his involvement with all the music institutions of the two last reigning Louis, Gossec enthusiastically embraced the ideals of the French Revolution, becoming the main provider of music for all the revolutionary celebrations (on this, see this article by Gossec specialist Claude Role, “François-Joseph Gossec: Musique de la Révolution“). He was also the founder of the Conservatoire and, with Mehul, Lesueur and Cherubini, was appointed one of its “Inspectors” – a directorial position, in fact (Grétry later joined in the same capacity) – and professor of composition. It is often said that he was Napoleon’s favorite composer, but that’s dubious, and anyway I’m not sure that’s the best tribute a composer would want. Who was Stalin’s favorite composer? Not Shostakovich, not Prokofiev, not Mossolov. Anyway, like Mehul and Cherubini, Gossec  managed to survive the turmoils of the Revolution, living to the respectable age of 95 and witnessing not only the death of Beethoven, but the restoration of royalty in France.

Gossec composed circa 70 symphonies of various forms, including Symphonies concertantes, “Hunting” and “Military” symphonies or Sinfonia-Overtures on the Italian model. Concerto Köln’s selection of four nicely spans nearly all of Gossec’s career, from the Sinfonia a più stromenti opus 6 no. 3 from circa 1762 (shortly before Gossec, upon the death of Pouplinière, entered the orchestra of Prince de Conti) to his ultimate, the famous Symphonie à 17 Parties from 1809, a tribute to the French Revolution; in between, Concerto Köln offers the Symphonie for Large Orchestra “The Hunt” (La Caccia) from 1774 (written for the famous orchestra of the Concerts Spirituels, one of the largest and most outstanding orchestra of the time, which Gossec headed from 1773 to 1777) and the Symphonie concertante (for violin, flute and recitative viola) drawn in 1784 from the ballet Mirza, premiered five years earlier and Gossec’s greatest stage success. If you add to that the Symphony op. 3-6 from the 1989 disc, Concerto Köln has surveyed the whole symphonic trajectory of Gossec.

I find the music more lightweight than I had expected. Not so much in the outer movements of the youthful Symphony op. 6-3, which, like the Symphony op. 3-6 from the earlier disc (no, they’re not the same and the digits haven’t been switched!) has some of the turbulence and passion associated as much to the Mannheim school and, later, the Sturm & Drang style as to the Italian baroque. But already, its middle “Minuetto gratioso” is written in a rather inconspicuous galant style and proceeds in a swift, march-like gait. Nothing to adumbrate the sublime Mozartean “slow” movement there.

The orchestra of Les Concerts Spirituels had, in addition to a large body of strings (42 players), 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and 2 kettledrums, which all added up to 59 players. Many orchestras of today would love to have that much. And you hear them all in the “Hunt” symphony, a piece which uses to the full the descriptive as well as the grandiose and triumphant possibilities of the orchestra (it is evidently a regal hunt, “chasse royale”, that is described), but that is more picturesque and entertaining (especially in its finale, with its imitation of dogs barking) than really profound, although there is more depth and emotion in its slow movement than in the earlier symphony’s. Interestingly, the symphony now follows the classical four-movement model. On the other hand, the Symphonie concertante after Mirza returns to the three-movement model, with a very short first movement which serves really as an introduction to the concertante and (not surprisingly) 2nd and 3rd. Stylistically the symphony sounds like a collection of the styles of the earlier ones: agitated in its first movement, joyous, playful, colorful and richly orchestrated in the finale, both framing a balletic, elegant and sentimental “Adagio”.

The Symphonie à 17 parties is Gossec’s symphonic magnum opus; as the “Hunt” Symphony it is lavishly orchestrated, with Hunt-like horns and many woodwinds, and has its grandiose and impressive moments, as well as momens of emotional turmoil and drama, but even in 1809 there is little that points to the burgeoning romantic sensibility, and it displays more color than profundity. The sweeping outer movements are alternately triumphant/grandiose and joyous/boisterous, and display an almost Rossinian sense of humor (but it could be Beethovenian as well, the brassy Beethoven of the early and patriotic works) in the bubbling interplay of woodwind instruments and some of the turns-of-phrases from the violins. In its emotional restraint and light-heartedness, the slow movement (Larghetto) again harks back to the earlier symphonies.

As always, Concerto Köln play with verve, zest and drive. Just compare their Symphony à 17 parties to the heavy-footed and thick-textured recording of Wolf-Dieter Hauschild on Naxos (a complement to the Requiem performed by Diego Fasolis), with its sentimentalized Larghetto and elephantine Minuet – you’d think he thought he was in the fugato of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica. [2017 addendum:] Merits are more equally shared in the Hunt Symphony with Stefan Sanderling and his Orchestre de Bretagne on ASV CD DCA 1123. Both versions are enjoyable, with a touch more transparency in the sonics of Concerto Köln, more thickness with Sanderling’s Orchestre de Bretagne, but also, in the outer movements, fine colors of his horns and clarinets. It isn’t that Concerto Köln’s instrumental colors lack pungency, but they are more in the manner of an etching as opposed to an oil painting. On the other hand their trumpets have more ring in the first movement and their horns sound more like hunting horns (which goes with a touch of “grayness”, together with the added rawness), those of Orchestre de Bretagne more like orchestral horns (and I guess that this is exactly what they are respectively). Tempos are similar in the outer movements, Concerto Köln plays with slightly more punch in the first movement but Orchestre de Bretagne isn’t lacking either, and it is the other way around in the Finale. There is more urgency and emotional turmoil in Concerto Köln’s approach to the Allegretto, more Mozartean despair in Sanderling’s. Concerto Köln here is probably truer to Gossec’s tempo indication (“Allegretto quasi allegro”), but the emotion is also beautiful at the more reined in tempo of Sanderling. Where Concerto Köln scores is in the Menuetto, where they maintain their lively approach, where Sanderling is impossibly thick and trudging, trying to turn into grandiose, regal music what should have remained (and remains with Concerto Köln) hunting music, but only making it thick, bombastic and pompous. Note also that the two ensembles don’t play exactly the same edition, Sanderling having re-opened some cuts made by Gossec in his manuscripts (see my review of the ASV CD for the details on this). Hearing Sanderling, one wonders why he made them.

[2017 addendum and modification] That said, when I first heard and reviewed this CD back in 2012, I hadn’t found the music as entirely convincing as other rediscoveries by the Concerto Köln: their Kraus (Capriccio 10 396 and Capriccio 10 430), Kozeluch (Teldec 8573-85495-2), Vanhal (Teldec 7 0630-13141-2 8) or Dittersdorf/Vandenbroek (on the 1989 CD). I attributed it back then to Concerto Köln’s choice among Gossec’s output, which I thought wasn’t as successful as it might have been: I had just listened also to the 3 Symphonies opus 8 recorded by the Belgians Guy Van Waas leading the “Les Agrémens” period-instrument ensemble on Ricercar-Outhère RIC 263, and found it wonderfully appealing. Coming back to the music some years later and having become more familiar with Gossec’s music, my resevations have now disappeared. It’s that I’ve come to realize that Gossec’s music, style and personality aren’t about “Sturm und Drang” and pre-romantic turmoil, and of course you are going to be a bit disappointed if that is what you came looking for. Gossec’s music is all about joy, merriment, pleasure, insouciance. I’ve called it “music for turning a blind eye to the impending collapse”. But it is never merely galant and salon-like. We easily associate the expression of suffering, turmoil and hand-wringing with an impression of profundity, and joy with superficiality. I think there is little real content in these literary associations. I certainly find much to relish in Gossec’s merriment.

Comments are welcome