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François-Joseph GOSSEC (1734 - 1829): "Requiem - La Nativité"

Hendrickje Van Kerckhovea, Elisabeth Schollc, soprano; Pascal Bertin, altoc; Philippe Gagné, haute-contreab; Robert Getchell, tenorc; Robbert Muuse, bass-baritoneab; Dirk Snellings, bassc
Ex Tempore; Barockorchester Mannheimeer Hofkapelleab; Les Agrémensc
Dir: Florian Heyerick

rec: Dec 2009, Ghent, Studio Steurbautc; March 2016, Gijzegem, Classic Audioab
CPO - 777 869-2 (© 2020) (69'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christe Redemptor, Motettum a due voce pro Nativitatis Christea; La Nativitéb; Messe des Morts (Requiem) (ed. Abel Régibo, c1800)c

This disc offers a rather odd combination of works. The first half of the programme is devoted to music for Christmastide, the second half is occupied by a Requiem. They date from about the same time, but otherwise they have little in common, also because the Requiem is performed here in an arrangement of a much later date.

The name of Gossec does not appear very often on programmes of orchestral and chamber music, although he contributed quite a lot to both genres. There has been some interest in his music for the stage, but that part of his output is not assessed very positively, in comparison, for instance, with that of his contemporary Grétry. Gossec was from Vergnies in the French-speaking part of the Austrian Netherlands. He sang as a chorister in Antwerp Carthedral and was educated on several instruments. In 1751 he settled in Paris, where he became acquainted with Jean-Philippe Rameau, who admitted him to the orchestra of his patron, Alexandre Le Riche de la Poplinière. In 1755 he succeeded Johann Stamitz as the orchestra's director. He held this post until La Poplinière's death in 1762. During this time he came under the influence of the Mannheim School, of which Stamitz was an exponent.

Gossec played an important role in music life in Paris, for instance as a director of the Concert des Amateurs, which he founded himself, and later the Concert Spirituel. He was active as a composer for the stage, but his works in this department found a mixed reception. After 1789 Gossec was one of the main composers of 'revolutionary music', which may have not done his reputation much good. With the ascension of Napoleon and the Consulate in 1799 Gossec's career as a composer effectively ended. Since then he composed very little and concentrated on teaching.

The disc under review here opens with La Nativité, an oratorio that found its first performance on Christmas Eve 1774. It was received well and was performed nine times at the Concert Spirituel. Noteworthy is especially the important role of the winds; Gossec had also written one of the first orchestral works in France with parts for clarinets. The two main roles are those of a shepherd (haute-contre) and shepherdess (soprano). A third minor role is taken by a magus (baritone), and a soprano (not a bass, as the booklet indicates) sings a recitative as 'a voice'. The choir represents the shepherds. The work opens with a duet of shepherd and shepherdess, but the latter takes the lead in a rather operatic way. The appearance of the angels causes quite a shock, which is expressed in the first recitative, whose instrumental introduction includes passages with loud interventions of timpani. When the shepherds have heard the good news, they decide to go to Bethelehem; the march of the shepherds is based on a well-known Noël, Mes bonnes gens attendés moi. The work ends with a song of praise by the choir of the shepherds.

Christe Redemptor is a motet in two sections for two voices (haute-contre, baritone), which was performed at the Concert Spirituel in 1763. Here Gossec avoids any orchestral effects. It is the combination of the two voices that creates a pastoral effect, as Florian Heyerick rightly observes in his liner-notes.

The largest work on this disc is the Messe des morts, which dates from 1760. Apparently this was Gossec's own initiative; there is no evidence that he was commissioned to write it. It was notable for the dramatic effects caused by the large wind section. New Grove quotes a note by Gossec himself, which was published by Fétis in 1829: "The audience was alarmed by the dreadful and sinister effect of the three trombones together with four clarinets, four trumpets, four horns and eight bassoons, hidden in the distance and in a lofty part of the church, to announce the last judgment, while the orchestra expressed terror with a muted tremolo in all the strings." You won't find any of that here. Heyerick recorded an arrangement from around 1800, in which the role of the winds is strongly reduced, and five sections are replaced by excerpts from Haydn's Stabat mater. This version is preserved in the library of the Ghent Conservatory. The arranger is not known. The result is a work that is overall rather harmless. It is not unlike much sacred music that was written at the time. It sometimes reminded me of sacred music by Neapolitan composers. It includes some arias that would not be out of place in an opera. That does not mean that it is not nice to listen to. However, one should probably not listen to this work from the perspective of the text. There are certainly some passages in which the text is expressed, but on the whole this music could be used for less serious texts as well.

Fortunately, Heyerick and his singers understand this and don't try to make more of it than it wants to offer. Heyerick has usually a good hand in selecting the singers for his recordings, and that is not any different here. Hendrickje van Kerckhove and Philippe Gagné deliver a fine performance of La Nativité and the latter's voice is a perfect match for Robbert Muuse's in Christe Redemptor. In the Requiem, Elisabeth Scholl, Pascal Bertin, Robert Getchell and Dirk Snellings are convincing in every aspect. Bertin's voice is called haute-contre in the booklet, but he is clearly a male alto, as he sings in falsetto. Choir and orchestra leave nothing to be desired. It is a shame that the members of the orchestra are not mentioned in the booklet.

As I wrote, the combination of works is rather odd, but all three are interesting and musically compelling in their very own way. The revival of French music from the second half of the 18th century is one of the positive developments of recent times. This disc is a valuable contribution to this development.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Philippe Gagné
Robert Getchell
Robbert Muuse
Elisabeth Scholl
Ex Tempore
Mannheimer Hofkapelle

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