August 15, 2019


Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Beethoven: Variations on themes by Grétry, Paisiello, Righini, and Winter; Piano Sonata in C, WoO 51; Waltzes, WoO 84 and 85. Larry Weng, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     What “everybody knows” about composers is often just wrong enough to be misleading. Everybody knows that Charles Gounod was an opera composer, and everybody knows that Beethoven was a grand and broad thinker in all his compositions, be they symphonies, string quartets, or piano concertos or sonatas. But the focus on what “everybody knows” has the effect of leaving intriguing portions of composers’ work neglected, unexplored, even dismissed out of hand because they could not possibly be worth hearing – they are just not in keeping with what “everybody knows” is worth listening to. This is a real shame, because it brings the risk of a hidebound “standard repertoire” beyond which listeners hesitate to go lest they be challenged or, more likely, disappointed to find out that what they have long thought about a composer is not quite right after all. It is also a shame because it leaves some fascinating music insufficiently heard – such as the two completed symphonies by Gounod. Dating to the mid-1850s, when Gounod was by no means an inexperienced composer (he was born in 1818), the symphonies are not only worth hearing in themselves but also interestingly reflective of Gounod’s predilection for operatic treatment of the orchestra. A new Chandos recording featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier brings the works’ dramatic and, yes, operatic elements to the fore, and in so doing makes these symphonies more substantial than they might otherwise seem to be. This does not mean Gounod’s symphonies are substantial: nearly three decades after Beethoven’s death, they hark back in most structural ways to the Classical era despite using Romantic-era harmonies. The first, in D, clearly shows Gounod’s debt to Haydn, whom the later composer much admired – in fact, the third movement, although marked Scherzo, is really a minuet, and it uses a Haydn “surprise” characteristic by starting its second half in what sounds like the wrong key. This movement and the symphony as a whole are actually more in French than Austrian style, but some of the key progressions are evidence of Beethoven’s influence. Graceful and lyrical, the symphony has some characteristic Gounod touches, such as considerable use of the bassoon and a concern for establishing the sort of drama that was to appear at much greater length in his operas – here, notably, at the symphony’s very beginning. The second symphony, significantly longer than the first (36 minutes vs. 26), is more Beethovenian than Haydnesque, although here the pleasantly undulating Larghetto possesses pastoral elements more evocative of the French countryside than of anything Germanic. Again the bassoon is prominent, and again the symphony – in E-flat – contains elements of drama; even more, it proffers greater seriousness than does Gounod’s First, although the finale lightens matters up significantly. It would be a mistake to think of these symphonies as musical indiscretions of some sort, as wanderings from the operatic way that was Gounod’s great strength: Gounod continued to be interested in symphonies throughout his life, and an eight-minute fragment of a third symphony still exists – written some 35 years after his two complete works in the form. Certainly Gounod was not a major symphonist; but equally certainly, his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are deserving of the sort of elegant, poised interpretations they receive from Tortelier and the Iceland ensemble, and are worthy of being heard from time to time strictly on their own merits.

     Whether some of the minor music of Beethoven deserves more-frequent revival is a somewhat different matter. Were the pieces played by Larry Weng on a new Naxos CD not by Beethoven, they would surely be dismissed as inconsequential, perhaps as something even less than “salon music.” But they are by Beethoven and, for that reason, provide an interesting counterbalance to the image of him as always deep, powerful and heaven-storming in his creations. To be sure, most lovers of classical music do know that Beethoven did not develop his very intense and highly personal style, which would usher in the Romantic era, until his encroaching deafness ended his career as a piano virtuoso. Well, it was during that early career as a pianist that he wrote almost every work played by Weng – works that were intended to showcase a pianist’s abilities by creating pleasant-sounding and sometimes highly virtuosic variations on popular tunes of the day. This explains the skill and undeniable care lavished by Beethoven in 1795 on his eight variations on a theme from André Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion that was one of the best-known arias of its time. It explains the seven variations from 1799 on a theme from Peter Winter’s then-popular Das unterbrochene Opferfest, and the nine from 1794 on an aria from La molinara by Giovanni Paisiello – who is now remembered primarily because he was the first to write an opera called Il barbiere di Siviglia, causing consternation both for Mozart (who wrote The Marriage of Figaro partly to avoid issues with Paisiello’s supporters) and for Rossini. And Beethoven’s variation sets on Grétry, Winter and Paisiello, all together, are only about the length of his 24 variations from 1790-91 on an arietta called Venni amore by Vincenzo Righini – a set whose average variation length is just one minute. All these variations show Beethoven’s skill both as composer and as pianist (although his technique at this time of his life is said to have been rougher and less nuanced than it later became). The variations are filled with different moods, tempos, dramatic moments, lyricism, warmth and out-and-out prettiness – that last being a characteristic in short supply in later and more-familiar Beethoven. Weng seems really to have enjoyed unearthing these little gems, which may be semi-precious rather than precious but which are, after all, by Beethoven, and which shed light on a time of his life about which most listeners may know little. And Weng plays three other unusual Beethoven works here as well: a partial sonata, featuring a complete first movement and a second one finished after Beethoven’s death by Ferdinand Ries, dating to 1794 but not published until 1830, three years after the composer’s death; and two waltzes – yes, waltzes! – written by Beethoven late in life (1824 and 1825). There is not much to the waltzes, one of which runs about two minutes and the other of which lasts just 36 seconds in Weng’s performance. But how many Beethoven lovers will ever have heard them before? Nothing here is great music, but it is all music by a great composer – and hearing it actually helps humanize Beethoven by proving that even a monumental genius had a side that could be light, playful, even trivial. Nothing that Weng plays here will add to Beethoven’s reputation, but certainly nothing will diminish it, either, and listeners will be charmed to find out that the well-known Rage Over a Lost Penny rondo was not a one-off in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Indeed, the sense of fun throughout this CD is a pleasing balance for the image of Beethoven as always being stodgy, scowling and super-serious.

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