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In the long-vanished heyday of High Fidelity magazine (or was it HiFi/Stereo Review?), one of the critics wondered aloud: "How was it that the man who was, at a guess, the 11th best French composer of his time parlayed a gift for sugary melody into one of the most popular operas ever written?" Although its vise-like grip on the world’s imagination has begun to loosen since the 1950s—though in terms of worldwide performances, it still figures firmly in Opera’s Top 40—Faust does have more than its share of apparently deathless tunes, something which cannot be said of its composer’s two symphonies.

Written during Gounod’s first flush of enthusiasm for the German symphony—sparked, in part, by his having met Fanny Mendelssohn during his time at the Villa Medici as a winner of the Prix de Rome—the Symphony No. 1 in D in an agreeable mélange of Haydn, Mozart, and Fanny’s brother Felix, with little that’s either original or particularly distinctive. Gounod’s pupil, the teenage Georges Bizet, was so fond of it that echoes can be heard in his early C-Major Symphony. (Bizet later famously disowned what was ultimately a far finer work lest he be accused of ripping off his teacher.) If the melodic inspiration in Gounod’s First Symphony is surprisingly thin, then it’s practically non-existent in the more tight-lipped and determined Second, which also rambles on much longer than it should, especially in the long-winded opening movement.

Collectors who own the classic Philips recording with Marriner and the Academy (462125) need not automatically trade it in, but as an unusually fresh-faced alternative, this new one is hard to beat. Along with nimbly responsive string section, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra boasts a superb collection of principal winds, with the solo flute and oboe being particularly outstanding, interacting so well together that they almost give the lie to all the ancient cats-and-dogs/flutist-oboe player clichés. But then again, Julius Baker and Harold Gomberg, the New York Philharmonic’s peerless wind duo were not the best of friends. (Incidentally, it’s a myth that they hated each other. They didn’t. Just each other’s guts.)

As in the Marriner recording, Gordan Nicolic loses no opportunity to find the most endearing possible accent or the most delectable turn of phrase; unless they’re all world-class actors as well, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra creates the unmistakable impression that they’re having the time of their lives, especially in D-Major Symphony, which crackles with wit, youthful exuberance, and life. The playing is also so brilliantly manicured that the applause at the end comes as a genuine shock. If the Second Symphony is less convincing—and Gounod was slightly taken aback by what he called its "certain degree of success"—then that’s undoubtedly the nature of the beast.

© 2015 Fanfare
Jim Svejda

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