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François-Joseph GOSSEC (1734-1829)
La Nativité, Christmas oratorio (1774)
Christ, Redeemer of the World, motet (1763)
Messe des Morts, requiem (1760)
Elisabeth Scholl (soprano), Pascal Bertin (tenor), Robert Getchell (tenor), Dirk Snellings (bass), Hendrickje van Kerckhove (soprano), Philippe Gagné (tenor), Robbert Muuse (bass baritone), Ex Tempore, Les Agrémens, Manheimer Hofkapelle/Florian Heyerick
rec. December 2009 and March 2016, Studio Steurbaut, Ghent and Classic Audio, Gijzegem, Aaist, Belgium
CPO 7778692 [69:00]

François-Joseph Gossec may be little known nowadays but he was once a leading 18th-century French composer. He was born in Vergnies, Belgium (it was then French territory), grew up close to Antwerp, and sang in the choir of Antwerp cathedral from the age of six. At seventeen, he moved to Paris to work under Rameau. He became a conductor and a director of a number of musical institutions, and he taught at the Conservatoire. He lived to a great age. His works included symphonies and covered most musical genres. His contemporary Haydn, despite this prolific output, largely overshadowed Gossec. Some of his works, particularly the symphonic music, are now being recorded thanks to the existence of rare archived scores held at the Ghent Conservatory library.

La Nativité, written to a text by Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, is the best of Gossec’s oratorios. Its lively and tuneful quality had such a strong effect on the audience when it was first heard that it became popular overnight. The work follows the wandering shepherds as they gather to anticipate Christ’s forthcoming birth. There is a brightness to the vocal lines that one can seriously enjoy. The critics declared the work to be stirring and effective, yet they had some difficulty in deciding how to describe the ‘modern’ orchestral effects they were listening to. To our ears today the music may be regarded as ‘tame’, yet we can be still moved by the warmth of orchestration and the harmonies which Gossec employs. The voices are comfortably placed within the music. Vocal sections are punctuated by orchestral interludes to give added colour. To me, this is an improvement on Handel.

The short motet Christ, Redeemer of the World fits well with the programme of this disc. Its springy rhythm gives another dimension to Gossec’s musical inventions. The two-part singing by Philippe Gagné and Robbert Muuse is nicely balanced.

The Requiem Mass of the Dead follows the pattern of vocal numbers expected by the Church. The Sanctus, when compared with Fauré’s Requiem, is rather heavy, and sadly has no outstanding features apart from the interesting counterpoint that the strings provide. The Agnus Dei is sung with a deliberate strength. The Mannheimer chorus has a nice balance of voices, but the words are indistinct in this work.

Les Agréments, a chamber orchestra that specializes in the baroque music of Bach, Handel,
Charpentier and Mozart, normally records on the Linn label. The Ex Tempore chamber orchestra was founded in 1989 by Florian Heyerick, who conducts on this disc. He graduated from Ghent University, so will have had privileged access to the fine archive of musical scores that he has brought to life after over two centuries. He knows his singers, and achieves an excellent blend of musical charm in these recordings.

Despite the seven-year distance between the two recordings, the acoustical balance is nicely matched, and one is not aware that the performances could be recorded at different venues. The recordings are captured within an appropriate atmosphere. The notes are in German, French and English. It may have been nice to have something about the structure of the works and more about their reception, but there is interesting material on Gossec himself.

Raymond J Walker

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