- Symphony No. 1 in D major
- Symphony No. 2 in E flat major
Charles Gounod's two symphonies, usually recorded together, have appeared on disc about a half-dozen times prior to this Naxos issue, Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. This entry into the slim Gounod symphonic sweepstakes marks the second recorded outing for flute virtuoso turned conductor Patrick Gallois, and one might think that the handsome profile on the front cover might be he, but no -- that is Gounod. In its blurb in the block on the back, Naxos is selling the first symphony through comparing it to Bizet's "Symphony in C," called by the label a "minor masterpiece" and citing that Gounod's D major effort provided the model for the familiar favorite. One need only refer to the number of recordings devoted to Bizet's C major symphony on the market to see how "minor" it is -- clearly in this case if Gounod's "Symphony No. 1" threw down the gauntlet for Bizet to pick up, the pupil did so and knocked the master into next week. Although it is commonly said that Gounod's "Symphony No. 2" is a more "ambitious and elaborate" work than "Symphony No. 1," the latter seems to hold up a little better. The opening movement, indeed, is very similar to Bizet's in structure and thematic development, except that you remember Bizet's music, and not Gounod's. The second movement, though, has some of the mysterious, gnomish qualities of Gounod's well-known "Funeral March of a Marionette." But we run into some serious differences in the third movement scherzo; Gounod's scherzo is not at all "joke-like," but sounds almost exactly like one of the third movement minuets in a late Haydn symphony. The "Symphony No. 2," from the second movement larghetto on, sounds like ballet music. While it is certainly nice, attractive music to listen to, it does not quite sound like a symphony. Gallois and the Finlandia Sinfonietta -- a more user-friendly handle than this orchestra's real name, Jyväskylä Sinfonia -- turn in a very fine and nuanced performance, although admittedly Gounod's orchestral music is so transparent and dutifully wrought that it would take a bad band indeed to truly screw it up. What is not so great is Naxos' recording, which is boxy, dark, and somewhat indistinct, although the sound is still a bit better than that found on Neville Marriner's 1997 recording of these same two symphonies for Philips -- it has exactly the same problems, but to a greater degree than the Naxos. In which case, this might be your best choice for these two symphonies. If the listener is of the attitude that French Romantic symphonies are naturally inferior to those produced by the Germans owing to their comparative fluffiness, then Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 will serve to confirm, rather than disclaim, this notion. Nevertheless, if one likes other Gounod, or has a predisposition to nineteenth century French music, then Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 should adequately serve the need.