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Théodore GOUVY (1819-1898)
Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 36 [24:44]
Sonata No. 2 in C minor, Op. 49 [24:45]
Sonata No. 3 in F major [16:25]
André De Groote and Irena Kofman (piano duet)
rec. 2014, exact date and venue unspecified. Steinway piano
TALENT DOM2911112 [65:53]

Louis Théodore Gouvy was born into a French-speaking family in the village of Goffontaine, in the Sarre, a region on the then Franco-Prussian border - now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany. Given that this region fell under Prussian control shortly before his birth, Gouvy could not attain French citizenship until the age of 32. He was thus a man of two cultures - from the historical standpoint a significant problem at the time. He eventually realised that his music was infinitely more successful in Germany than in France where public taste was far more concerned with Italian opera rather than with chamber or symphonic music, Gouvy's main area of composition. While to a certain extent he was known and recognized in his lifetime, he fell into obscurity following his death, despite being much appreciated in Germany, where he spent the last third of his life. Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms were his models and his music developed along the lines one might have expected of the first two men, had they lived longer.

Virtually all of his works show him to be a gifted melodist, and the three sonatas for piano duet recorded here certainly corroborate this. Together with the three composers mentioned above, it was evidently Gouvy's intention to bring the somewhat neglected 19th-century piano duet to the same level as other contemporary chamber-music genres. To this end his three essays in the form can certainly hold their own against anything written by any more illustrious names at the time. In fact, had they not fallen victim to the never-ending rivalry of the time between France and Prussia, Gouvy's works here might well have provided a model for later composers.

The Belgian Talent label describes itself as 'a label of classical discoveries', and even though the website and online catalogue don't appear to have been updated since February 2013, there is already a real mix of familiar names with those almost on the verge of obscurity.

The Sonata No. 1 in D minor is a fully-fledged four-movement work which engages the listener from the very outset, with its lyrical Romantic opening which very quickly leads into a scherzo-like section. Thematic material is skilfully shared between the players and the high craftsmanship of the writing in general is immediately apparent in what is a most compelling sonata-form movement. Shades of Mendelssohn are particularly evident at the close. The gently serene Adagio slow movement is a lovely creation, poignant yet never merely over-sentimental. It has some subtle rhythmic movement in the accompaniment to ensure that onward progress never appears lethargic. The third movement has a scherzo-like feel, though with a moderate 2/4 gait, which brings to mind Schumann in some of his short descriptive pieces. This leads straight into the finale, which bears the indication 'Epilogue. Moderato assai quasi Larghetto', and has an almost barcarolle-like charm. The jury's out though, as to whether it really provides an effective and substantial enough close to what has gone before, in terms of tempo balance between the four movements overall.

The Sonata No. 2 in C minor again opens with a more lyrical movement, though with some more troubled overtones at times. Repeated triplet patterns add to the overall dramatic mix, which then seems to fluctuate between moments of passion and emotional urgency. Rather like Brahms, Gouvy manages to accommodate all this romantic freedom within the confines of regular first-movement sonata-form - the poetic coda adds a nice touch here. There is an almost operatic feel to some of the melodic lines in the ensuing Larghetto, particular when set against an accompaniment of tremolo chords, clearly suggesting a similar effect with strings under a vocal line. A brief modulation leads straight into the third movement - a more sedate three beats-in-a-bar Minuet, rather than a faster one-in-a-bar scherzo. The trio (in the tonic major) has almost a Viennese-Waltz ambiance, and makes a perfect bitter-sweet contrast with the more robust Minuet itself. The finale (Allegro vivace) reminds me more of a fleet-of-foot gallop, though interspersed with moments of repose along the way. The closing section accelerates to a most effective and exciting conclusion.

The Sonata No. 3 in F major is a shorter, more compact work in three movements, and of a generally sunnier disposition than its two minor-key partners. This is especially noticeable in the opening Allegro con brio which looks forward, via Mendelssohn, slightly to the piano writing of Saint-Saëns, and where the harmonic palette is also somewhat richer than its predecessors. Once again a charming little coda rounds the movement off to great effect. Originally Gouvy planned a long and impressive Adagio for the slow movement, but wisely decided to substitute a shorter Andantino scherzoso, a delightfully light confection with some modal harmonies. This functions both as slow movement and scherzo/minuet - possibly the reason why he did not feel the need for four movements here. The final Allegro risoluto sounds remarkably like a bit of Percy Grainger as it cheerfully struts its stuff. Triplet figurations become important as the movement progresses, as do a number of pedal points. A calmer section leads to the close, where triplets are again prominent in the ultimate build-up, before an almost tongue-in-cheek ending rounds off this appealing finale, which is never short on virtuosity or grace.

The question, then, is whether this musical 'discovery' is really something worth 'discovering'. From the musical standpoint the answer must be a resounding yes, as Gouvy really does speak with an individual voice. It is abundantly clear that historical and geographical conditions did seriously compromise the chances of Gouvy and his music becoming better known at the time, and receiving the subsequent credit it duly deserves.

The performance, too, is absolutely first-rate. The De Groote/Kofman team showing not only great empathy for the style, and clearly sounding as if they enjoyed every single note, but in pure terms of balance and ensemble, their playing can simply not be faulted. The recording has captured the piano sound to perfection and, even if the sleeve-notes aren't particularly comprehensive or overly informative, this highly-enjoyable CD of Gouvy's music for Piano Duet is bound to please.

Philip R Buttall


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