Sunday, 1 July 2012

Gounod without voices

Jean-Marc Janiaczyk, Provencal bastide

Have you ever heard Charles Gounod's Petite symphonie in B flat major? It's a delightful late piece, dating from 1888, and is as light, sparkling and elegant as French music is often said to be - often by the French themselves. Gounod said, "France is essentially the country of precision, neatness and taste" and his work exemplifies all three of those qualities. 

The Petite symphonie can either be seen as a nostalgic tribute to Mozart and his genial wind divertimenti or as a neo-Classical piece before its time. (I'd choose the first option). Though called a 'symphony' it is much more of a chamber work. It was written for a society of wind players and requires only nine performers (a flute and pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons). The quality of the part-writing throughout is exquisite and the piece also includes many attractive rustic touches.

The first movement begins with a beguiling slow section, full of warmly-blended wind sonorities and sounding not too remote from Mozart. The main allegro opens to a rhythmically-infectious tune which sounds as French as can be. Other tunes follow - one rising and falling lyrically, another evoking the bagpipes of Provençal folk music. All the tunes are hummable. The movement is in sonata form and a good-natured development section and recapitulation follows. 

The Andante cantabile second movement is, in its outer sections, a flute aria of friendly, operatic melodiousness (and accompanied accordingly), gentle and lyrical - as if Mozart had been reborn as a French composer of lyric operas! The middle section brings the other players to the fore and gives them solos too, passing through darker harmonies without casting a cloud.

The Scherzo (the star movement) has a considerable amount of charm, with catchy rhythms, varied colours and jolly tunes. The trio section carries us back into the countryside for a gentle, relaxed dance notable for its simple tunefulness and ever-changing scoring.

The Finale is clearly guided by the spirit of Mozart (as Gounod understood it) and is the epitome of grace. It begins well and just keeps on giving. Also in sonata form, it has little touches of Classical-style counterpoint as it proceeds.  

Vive Mozart! Vive la France!

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