If there existed a prize for the World-Famous Composer Whom We Falsely Supposed We Knew, Gounod would win it at a canter. Take away Faust, the Funeral March for a Marionette (immortalised by Alfred Hitchcock), the Bach-derived Ave Maria, and how much Gounod have most of us heard? Singularly little. Even his Messe Solennelle and O Divine Redeemer, beloved during the early 20th century, have largely faded from general consciousness. Yet never fear, Hyperion is here, giving us not just utterly obscure Gounod pieces but an utterly obscure instrument: the pedal-piano (usually called pédalier in France and Pedalflügel in Germany), which once inspired enthusiasm in Schumann, Alkan, and Franck.
Equipped with an organ-style pedal-board as well as standard piano keys, the pédalier emerged recently on an Olivier Latry disc where the tinny, clattering, bar-room sound largely defeated this reviewer. Hyperion’s pédalier has a much more attractive tone, and incorporates two Steinway grand pianos – the annotations explain the Rube-Goldberg-like procedures involved – to produce handsome results. Compared with a conventional piano, the timbre remains on the dry side. Nevertheless the outcome proves unfailingly musical, which chez Latry it assuredly was not.
No-one would credit this repertoire with consistent brow-furrowing profundity, and Roberto Prosseda often had to work from manuscript sources (which came from Gérard Condé, the world’s leading Gounod scholar, who furnishes the accompanying booklet’s musical exegeses.) As Beecham discerned, lightweight music like this is damnably hard to get right; but Prosseda, Howard Shelley, and the Italian-Swiss orchestra all manage it. And like all fine entertainers, Gounod can sometimes catch you unawares by his depth, as with the Concerto’s curiously menacing slow movement. Recording quality and packaging are well up to Hyperion’s usual standards. Give this CD a try.