1989 was not only four years after the period-instrument ensemble Concerto Köln was founded - they've become since such a stalwart of the period-instrument and Historically-Informed-Performance scene that you'd easily think they'd been there forever - but also 200 years after the French populace ransacked the Bastille, freed the seven prisoners still detained there and promenaded the heads of the prison's governor and a few of its guards on spikes through the streets of Paris. Nice that Concerto Köln seized the opportunity to unearth four forgotten and appealing symphonies related (more or less) to the event or the period. By then, Concerto Köln had made no more than a single-handful of recordings: 6 Venetian Concertos (by Vivaldi, Sammartini and Locatelli) for the French label Arion (Concerti (6) Venitiens), a recital of Trumpet Concertos of the Early Baroque (Corelli, Franceschini, Gabrieli, Manfredini, Stradella, torelli, Viviani), Gluck's Echo & Narcisse - Concerto Köln's first among many fruitful recorded collaborations with René Jacobs (Gluck : Echo & Narcisse), Vivaldi's Concertos for Winds and Strings, Antonio Vivaldi: Concerti For Wind And Strings / Concerto Koln, Concerto Köln's first recording for Capriccio (a dozen more followed until their switch to Teldec in 1994, before briefly returning to Capriccio in the early 2000s), and a CD of music of the Bach sons, (Sinfonia/Concerto Harpsichord/Adagio & Fugue).
The Symphonie Concertante in G-major for Two Principal Violins, mixed with Patriotic Airs, of "Citizen Davaux" (Jean-Baptiste "Citoyen" Davaux), published in 1794, is written in a galant style, far removed from what you'd expect to be the turmoils of the revolutionary emotions and spirit - although some of that is due to the interpretation of Concerto Köln, less robust than the competing recording of Luis Michal and Martha Carfi on Musiques de la Revolution Francaise-Hommage du Monde. The work is also made very entertaining (I first wrote that it was "enlightened", but then realized that, in the context of the era, I'd better reserve that notion for other uses) by its concertante nature (but there's a better stereo separation in the other recording), and by the use of themes from revolutionary songs, drawing heavily upon the Marseillaise (in the first movement) and, in the finale, "Ah ça ira ça ira" (the famous song calling for the hanging of all aristocrats), and "Dansons la Carmagnole".
That very turmoil of the French Revolution, you hear better in François Martin's Symphonie en G-minor op. 4-2 - although it represents one of the "less" in the "related more or less to the event" mentioned above. Indeed, the Symphony was published in 1751 and Martin died in 1757 (at the age of thirty), a number of years and still a king away from royal beheading. Apparently Martin was a highly successful cellist and composer in his days, and the collection he published in 1751 were, according to the liner notes, among the first French symphonies. "Et pour un coup d'essai, ce fut un coup de maître" (after Corneille's Le Cid: I've found online a clever English translation which goes "Our trial strokes are masterstrokes"). I won't be excessively nitpicking about the odd inclusion of the symphony in this collection devoted to an event that took place almost four decades later, given its quality. The outer movements have an agitation that harks back to the Italian baroque but also points to the austro-german Sturm und Drang style of 20 years later, but the composition's true highlight is its exquisite and wonderfully original second movement, written entirely in string pizzicatti and sounding, really, like a symphony for harps.
With, possibly, Cherubini, Mehul and Grétry, Gossec is THE French composer most associated with the era - the last decades of the 18th and first decades of the 19th. Although he had already had a long (and not entirely successful) career under the Ancient Regime, starting in the early 1750s, he became something like the unofficial "official" provider of music for the Revolutionary ceremonies and, with Mehul, Cherubini and Lesueur (and later Grétry), he was appointed "Inspector" of the Conservatoire upon its creation in 1795 - a directorial position, in fact - and its professor of composition. He is also often said to have been Napoleon's favorite composer, although that is 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. Still, 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.
The liner notes are disappointingly silent about the date and circumstances of composition of the Symphony in D op. 3-6. Research on the Internet yielded various documentation on Gossec (in French) emanating from the Center for Baroque Music of the Versailles Palace, according to which the Six Symphonies opus 3 were Gossec's first published symphonies, in 1756 (the composer was 22 then). When Haydn's first was composed is still disputed (it may not have been the one known as Symphony No. 1), but at any rate it wasn't before 1757. In fact, it is probably from Johann Stamitz (the Stamitz father, and famous founder of the so-called Mannheim School) that Gossec took his model, since Stamitz had succeeded Rameau as the conductor of the orchestra of La Pouplinière, in which the young Gossec had been hired as violinist and bassist.
Rather than that early work, which, like Martin's, predates the French Revolution by a few decades,Gossec's famous Symphonie à 17 parties, composed in 1809 and his last, meant as a celebration the 20th anniversary of the French Revolution, might have been a better choice for the collection (it is played in Concerto Koln's 2003 return to Gossec, Gossec: Symphonies. But again let's not be nitpicking: the Symphony played here is wonderfully lively and uplifting in its outer movements, and very expressive in its middle andante.
But, with Davaux', the most topical work gathered on this collection is Dittersdorf's Symphony "La Prise de la Bastille". Little is known about the circumstances of the work, other than that it was composed for Paris. In a recent review of three symphonies of Dittersdorf I wondered why Haydn had made it in posterity's favors and not him (Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf: Sinfonias). Not a matter of abundance, mind you, since about 120 symphonies are ascribed with certainty to the composer and another 90 are putative. But, from what I've heard of both composers (and I'll admit that my knowledge of Haydn's 104 symphonies is still very superficial and piecemeal), not a question of quality either. The present symphony is a magnificent work, richly orchestrated, powerful and dramatic, with pre-echoes of Beethoven's revolutionary might and high-spirits (just try the beginning of the finale). The more I hear symphonies of Dittersdorf, the more I am convinced that he is one of the unknown gems of the era.
1989 was not stingy in tributes to the music of the French Revolution, but this is one of the most valuable ones, with music whose enduring quality transcends the occasion. It still affords many pleasures almost a quarter-century later - I mean, 225 years! TT 61:38. There's another entry for the same disc and you may want to check it for the best price, La Prise de la Bastille.
And a post-script from a few days later. Latest news. Researching on the net for more information on some choral works of Gossec, I learned that Dittersdorf's Symphony was not by Dittersdorf at all, but by the Flemish hornist and composer Othon-Joseph Vandenbroecke (1759-1832, also spelled Vandenbroeck, van den Broeck, or van den Broek). I don't know how it became attributed to Dittersdorf. But here goes my theory about Dittersdorf's unrecognized genius, down the drain... Now I need to devise a theory about Vandenbroecke's unrecognized genius. And it sure is unrecognized: a search on this website, under all four spellings, yields not one result. Uncanny that Vandenbroecke died three years after his fellow Belgian Gossec, in the same small suburb of Paris, Passy...
- Audio CD (12. November 1992)
- Anzahl Disks/Tonträger: 1
- Label: Capriccio
- ASIN: B001UUN95M
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