Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 Iceland Symphony Orchestra & Yan Pascal Tortelier

Being so opera-centric as I am, it was not until this CD fell into my hands that I discovered Gounod was in fact a great symphonist. Under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra brings us a fine recording of Gounod’s two epic symphonies, the first likely influenced by time spent with friend Felix Mendelssohn, and the second paying obvious homage to Beethoven.

Operatic drama links the two – unsurprising, considering Gounod was primarily an opera composer. It’s unusual to hear his music without singing, and at some climactic points in either symphony I did expect to hear a soprano soaring above the orchestra. However, that is not to say that Gounod’s symphonic music is in any way lacking – far from it.

Symphony No. 2 is a lesson in fine symphonic writing, opening with two triumphant chords à la Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. As mentioned in the liner notes, the final movement begins with ‘superficial jollity’, but ‘Beethovenian seriousness’ is eventually restored, and we are treated to a suitably epic and uplifting finale. Symphony No. 1 is by contrast gentler and perhaps even more classical in style and occasionally reserved manner. Tortelier and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra bring Gounod’s orchestral music to bubbling, optimistic life.

Alexandra Mathew is a classical music specialist at Readings Carlton.