November 02, 2006


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4, “Romantic.” Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. LPO. $16.99.

Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Patrick Gallois conducting Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä. Naxos. $8.99.

     Only a couple of decades separate Anton Bruckner’s Fourth from Charles Gounod’s two symphonies, but the works might as well have been composed on different planets.  In a sense, they were: Gounod’s, from 1855, were written by an opera and church composer along classical lines; Bruckner’s, first written in 1874 and revised in 1877-8, was structured under strong Wagnerian influence (Bruckner’s previous symphony quotes directly from Wagner operas) by a master symphonist whose strong religious belief was reflected mostly in his instrumental music.  And of course, Gounod’s works fall in the French tradition (his first symphony influenced the Symphony in C by his pupil, Georges Bizet), while Bruckner’s are distinctly and distinctively Germanic.

     It is easy, even facile, to call Bruckner’s Fourth the greatest of these three works and simply to dismiss Gounod’s symphonies.  The Bruckner is great music, and the Gounod works are not, but when well played and well conducted, they have charm and a direct emotional appeal that is quite different from the lofty sentiments of the much vaster Bruckner work.

     This Klaus Tennstedt performance of the Bruckner Fourth, recorded live in 1989, is an exceptional one.  Tennstedt, originally from East Germany, had a visceral feeling for Mahler, and he turned the London Philharmonic Orchestra into a very fine Mahler orchestra, if never a wholly intuitive one.  But Tennstedt was not identified with Bruckner as much as with Mahler – and, on the basis of this CD, that may have been a mistake.  Tennstedt here shows tremendous sensitivity to the innards of Bruckner’s Fourth, the interrelatedness of its themes, the way in which the parts of each movement fit together and the parts of all movements are assembled to create a stunning entirety.  Tennstedt takes chances: he zips through the Scherzo, usually an 11½-to-12-minute movement of some stolidity, in a mere 10½ minutes, making the outer sections nearly breathless and the central Trio a region of genuine respite.  The overall feeling of this performance is one of forward motion, building inexorably toward the overwhelming climax of the finale.  But in fact there is nothing inexorable in this work, as many other performances show.  This Tennstedt reading, which has the added advantage of a very fine sound recording by BBC Radio, is one to cherish.

     It is doubtful that anyone will cherish the new CD of Gounod’s symphonies: they are built on a much smaller scale, ask less of the listener, and deliver a smaller experience in a straightforwardly effective manner.  Patrick Gallois, better known as a flautist than a conductor, leads Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä with clarity and a fine sense of pacing.  The first symphony will be more interesting for many listeners, both because of the Bizet influence and because it is a simpler, more straightforward, significantly shorter work.  The second has aspirations to greater grandeur (calling them “delusions of grandeur” would be unkind), with a first-movement Adagio introduction that sets the scene for something broad – only to switch to fairly commonplace gaiety in the main section, marked “Allegro agitato.”  Gounod’s theatricality and interest in wide appeal seem to conflict with his desire for depth: he marks the slow movement “Larghetto (non troppo),” as if wanting to be sure it isn’t taken too seriously, then produces a slow, involving theme that he soon proceeds to contrast with jaunty dotted rhythms.  The finale is jaunty, too, with delicacy and fleetness and a triumphant conclusion.  No, Gounod’s symphonies are not great music, but there is a place in the concert hall for pleasant music, too.  Or there ought to be.

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