What a total tonic to start April’s listening adventures with the two Symphonies by Charles-François Gounod, celebrated for Faust of course (albeit just one of his twelve operas, and there is also a boatload of choral pieces and songs). He was very accomplished with orchestra alone as these Symphonies (both from the mid-1850s) handsomely demonstrate. They are so delightful (and he left a Third unfinished); Michel Plasson led the way for me, and now Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra make sunny weather of them.
It would be all-too-easy to become samey in describing the eight movements. Suffice to say each is a gem – joyous, charming, lyrical and witty, the latter quality cueing some Rossini-like ribaldry. The Scherzo of Symphony 1 (more a Minuet) might be heard as a meeting between Haydn and early Mendelssohn (with a hint of a Strauss Family waltz), the bucolic Trio relaxing in the French countryside, not a cloud in the sky, champagne and caviar on the picnic table. And the first movement is irresistible. I assume that as the seventeen-year-old Bizet was Gounod’s pupil in 1855 and made a two-piano version of his maître’s D-major Symphony that similarities with his own C-major work are not coincidental (both so-expressive slow movements have a fugal element); it matters not, for they are evergreen jewels, and Bizet was showing fertile compositional mettle, music in both cases that makes it good to be alive, and Gounod’s insouciant first movement also points the way to Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques score (at Gounod’s funeral, in 1893, he died aged seventy-five, Fauré conducted, and Saint-Saëns played the organ).
The slow introduction to the D-major’s Finale has gravitas, a pregnancy that gives way to a bounce and optimism that cues a smile and a thank-you to Monsieur Gounod for lifting one’s spirits. Similarly, the (longer) E-flat work has its solemn aspects (after all, this is the key of The Magic Flute), but they don’t last long, although the first-movement is marked Allegro agitato and nods to Schubert – and also enjoys seamless symphonic thinking – while the Adagio distils soulfulness and bliss (Schumannesque), dancing gracefully a little later, and carrying on into a (genuine) Scherzo, shadows and rhythmic glee side-by-side, the Trio another scène aux champs, rather autumnal this time. As for the perky Finale, imagine Gounod spending a convivial evening with Rossini in one of Paris’s finest restaurants (it might have happened), much enjoying the Italian’s anecdotes and jokes, going home in elated mood and being able to complete his Second Symphony with joie de vivre.
The Icelanders' playing is of sensitivity, élan and enjoyment, and Tortelier knows just how this music goes, not least with affection, and is aided and abetted by Brian Pidgeon (producer) and Jonathan Cooper (engineer) for an end-result that is going to be played often and with much pleasure.