This issue is nothing short of a rare gem. Why? Simply because the programme focuses on three composers who can be called truly great. All three were contemporaries, and their careers were in one way or another all effected by the French Revolution. Who are they then? None other than the eternal Beethoven, and the neglected Méhul and Cherubini. Let us take them one by one.
Étienne Méhul (1763-1817), the most important French opera composer during the Revolution, was the first composer to be called a 'Romantic'. He is particularly renowned for his many operas written in keeping with the reforms introduced by Gluck, his immediate predecessor. His first opera Euphrosine was premiered in 1790, and its immense success led to a long relationship with the Opéra-Comique. During the Revolution Méhul composed many patriotic songs, and he was rewarded by becoming the first composer named to the newly founded Institut de France in 1795. Méhul was also on friendly terms with Napoleon, and became one of the first Frenchmen to receive the Légion d'honneur. During the 1790s Méhul worked tirelessly on many serious operas that were produced with regularity, but with the arrival of the nineteenth century, popular tastes started to change very rapidly, and audiences were demanding much lighter fare than the stormy dramas of the previous decade. Still, in the spirit of a true artist, Méhul continued to write serious stage-works.
Undoubtedly, Méhul's most important contribution to music was his operatic oeuvre, and his efforts inspired a generation of composers that emerged in France in the 1790s. One of these was Luigi Cherubini, his friend and rival, who incidentally is represented on this album. But besides opera, Méhul also composed a number of songs for the festivities of the Republic commissioned by Napoleon, cantatas and five symphonies in the years 1797 and 1808-10.
The composer's First Symphony (1808) is notable for its dissonant and violent mood, and has been compared to Beethoven's Fifth, written in the same year. Taking inspiration from the more anguished works of Haydn and Mozart, this symphony has the Sturm und Drang element at its very heart and the music is consistently dramatic. Felix Mendelssohn thought very highly of it, and he revived the piece in 1839 in one of his concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In 1846 it was performed again in front of a packed audience which included Robert Schumann, who was full of praise for Méhul's music.
Listen — Étienne Nicolas Méhul: Allegro (Symphony No 1)
(HMM 902448.49 CD2 track 1, 2:58-3:57) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was born in Florence, but from the early 1780s he settled in France where his career flourished well beyond his expectations. The Florentine was to remain in France till the end of his life. Beethoven rated Cherubini as the greatest living composer of his time, but sadly, apart from his Médée (Medea), we rarely get the chance to hear his wonderful music. The Italian was to dominate French musical life for half a century with his revolutionary operatic style and patriotic works at the end of the eighteeth century, and religious output in the early nineteenth.
Lodoïska, his second French opera, is considered the first truly Romantic piece in the genre, and to have founded the French school. This is what the nineteenth century musicologist Alexander Ulybysev had to say about Cherubini:
The musician who after Mozart has exerted the greatest general influence on the tendency of the art is Cherubini, who strikes me as being the most accomplished musician, if not the greatest genius, of the 19th century.
Lodoïska, a comédie héroïque in two Acts, was premiered at the Theatre Feydeau, Paris on 18 July 1791. It is considered one of the most important works in the history of French opera. Giroud calls it the first Romantic opera, combining a dramatic plot and a musical language that draw from both the Italian tradition at its most melodic and Gluck's innovations, albeit within a richer symphonic texture. Crowest wrote:
Lodoïska fell like a thunderbolt. The advanced harmonic combinations, startling and realistic orchestral effects and tone colours mark a great artistic advance, a stride so vast that it is scarcely surprising that it caused alarm among the composers of the day.
Listen — Luigi Cherubini: Overture (Lodoïska)
(HMM 902448.49 CD1 track 1, 5:27-6:22) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :
The opera is based on an anecdote in a popular novel of the day, Louvray's Vie et amours du chevalier de Faublas. The story is pure melodrama: the hero and his cleverer servant rescue a maiden in peril from the clutches of a black-hearted, black-hatted aristocrat. The libretto did not go down well with the critics, but there was plenty to interest a revolutionary audience: speeches about liberty, justice and humanity, beautiful stage sets, a spectacular conflagration, and rebellious-minded Tartars. (The opera is set in Poland in 1600.)
This magnificent programme is brought to an end by Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth Symphonies. Symphony No 4 in B Flat, Op 60, was composed in 1806, and premiered in March 1807 at a private concert in Vienna in the townhouse of Prince Lobkowitz. Predominantly genial, the Fourth has, even since Beethoven's time, suffered a certain neglect, maybe because it is flanked by the mighty Third (Eroica) and the ferocious Fifth. Nonetheless, great names such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Schumann admired the piece. In general, the symphony is sunny and cheerful with lots of humour, particularly in the third and fourth movements. The instrumentation is light, reminding one of Haydn's symphonic language, with whom Beethoven had studied a decade before. The opening is sombre and dark, but out of nothing, the music explodes into an Allegro, vivace that is gaiety itself. The Adagio is a slow but gently flowing rondo, with the rhythmic figure of the opening theme persisting throughout. The Scherzo e Trio is full of lively and sparkling tunes that still surprise the listener with their ingenious harmonies. The Symphony ends with a veritable tour de force that glows with an infectious joy from beginning to end.
Listen — Beethoven: Allegro ma non troppo (Symphony No 4)
(HMM 902448.49 CD1 track 5, 3:00-3:57) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :
Symphony No 8 in F, Op 93, was composed over a four month period in 1812, and Beethoven fondly referred to it as 'my little symphony'. The work is generally light-hearted but not lightweight, and in many places is loud with many accented notes. Beethoven was forty-one when he embarked on this composition, but his personal circumstances were far from ideal - he was almost totally deaf - and writing music was definitely an immense challenge. But being the genius he was, he was able to create a true gem of a symphony that always sounds fresh and invigorating. The premiere took place on 27 February 1814 in Vienna, but the reception was cool to say the least. This reaction angered the composer, as he was convinced that the Eighth was better than the successful Seventh, an assessment also shared by George Bernard Shaw. Martin Geck has this to say on this symphony:
This work contains all the relevant hallmarks, including motivic and thematic writing noted for its advanced planning, defiant counterpoint, furious cross-rhythms, sudden shifts from 'piano' to 'forte' and idyllic and even hymnlike episodes.
Indeed, the Eighth has all of these elements plus a melodic versatility that make it unique in the Beethoven canon. Not a long symphony by any means - some twenty-eight minutes - but a work bursting with colour and beauty that remains with you long after the piece has ended.
Listen — Beethoven: Allegro vivace (Symphony No 8)
(HMM 902448.49 CD2 track 8, 6:15-7:12) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :
Bernhard Forck leads with engrossing enthusiasm, and his Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin responds with some truly exhilarating performances that sweep you off your feet. The Beethoven in particular is absolutely compelling, even if the orchestra is not of the usual numbers one expects on such occasions. This is spectacular music from a turbulent era which I recommend wholeheartedly. Sound and booklet notes are top-drawer stuff.
Copyright © 16 September 2022