Gossec’s Symphonies That Influenced Mozart Revived

Gossec front

GOSSEC: Symphonies: Op. 5, Nos. 2 & 3; Op. 12, Nos. 5 & 6; B86 / London Mozart Players; Matthias Bamert, conductor / Chandos CHAN9661

François-Joseph Gossec is scarcely a name well known to the majority of music lovers, but as these symphonies will prove, he was at this stage of his career not terribly dissimilar a composer from Mozart, his younger contemporary. In fact, he may be seen as an influence on the younger composer—even considering the fact that Mozart was writing symphonies as a 12-year-old. The point I’m making is that although Gossec, as a violinist, became intimately familiar with the music of the Mannheim period, his own work tended towards the light and lyrical. He didn’t seem to be too strongly moved by the sturm-und-drang style that Haydn (two years his senior) or C.P.E. Bach were pursuing.

Which brings up an interesting artistic question: Would we think Mozart such a great composer if he hadn’t been a child prodigy and hadn’t eventually written the symphonies from No. 29 onward, the late operas or the Requiem? I’m not so sure about that, and you shouldn’t assume it, either. The weight of publicity, promotion and academia are pretty heavy influences on those we consider great and wonderful and those we tend to ignore, and there is no reason on artistic grounds alone to say that Mozart was a supreme genius and Gossec was just a wannabe. The music doesn’t sustain those categorizations. As Mozart wrote to his father, his modus operandi in his symphonies was to write music that appealed to the average listener but had just enough twists and turns in it to appeal to the sophisticated listener without his knowing why. I hear exactly the same things in Gossec’s Symphonies. Indeed, the first work on this CD, the Symphony in F, Op. 12 No. 6 sounds so much like Mozart that it could easily be mistaken for a “newly-discovered” work by the younger composer, and the Symphony in E-flat, Op. 5, No. 2, sounds very much like one of Mozart’s adolescent-age symphonies. There is NO drop-off in quality; or, to flip the coin over, no great increase in the quality of Mozart’s symphonies. Gossec’s work is not mind-boggling or innovative, but it is better than routinely crafted. It is very good music of its age, just as so many of Mozart’s pre-No. 29 Symphonies are.

Of course, a great deal of his music’s impact is dependent upon the interpretations, and the playing of the London Mozart Players under Matthias Bamert is distinguished by its energy and commitment. No detail passes by unnoticed, no phrase is underplayed or tossed off indifferently; all is finely honed and polished, presenting Gossec’s music in its best light. Granted, the earlier Op. 5 Symphonies are lighter in character and more “French”-sounding than the Op. 12 works, but good writing is good writing, and Gossec was by no means a hack or an also-ran. He was a fine composer of his time.

And yet I found myself wavering as to whether to recommend this issue or not, for the simple reason that there really is nothing here that Mozart didn’t do at least as well if not a shade better. And it is that “shade bettere” that makes a differences as to whether one would ever relisten to this disc or not in the future. The bottom line is that Gossec’s Symphonies are not nearly as great or as original as his Requiem, which is an undisputed masterpiece and does bear repeated listening. But the choice is yours. If you’re looking for music in the Mozart vein and don’t think Mozart wrote enough symphonies, this is certainly a CD to get!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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