Etienne-Nicolas Mehul (1763-1817) was the leading French-born composer of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. The sad fact is his posthumous reputation would probably have fared better had he been born in Germany and not France as he had far more influence on later German composers, such as Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, who greatly admired his style. Of the French, only Berlioz really showed much interest in him, and the younger composer's essay on his predecessor in his "Evenings with the Orchestra" is probably the best introduction to Mehul's work. Nowadays he tends to be dismissed as a "transitional" composer (aren't all composers transitional though?) along with his friend and rival Luigi Cherubini, stranded between the end of the Classical period before fully-fledged Romanticism had taken over. Cherubini has had rather more (although not much more) attention paid him on disc, including several compilations of his opera overtures. As far as I know, this is the very first CD wholly dedicated to those of Mehul, and very welcome it is too. It gives us a chance to hear some of the composer's dramatic flair and gift for instrumental colour at work.
True, there is plenty of evidence of Classical influence here: Haydn, and more particularly Gluck, Mehul's teacher, spring to mind. The first overture, "Melidore et Phrosine", after a troubled, tentative opening launches into a dark, tempestuous main section with driving rhythms reminiscent of Gluck's overture to "Alceste", before subsiding into a gentle, lilting barcarole with horns calling out the rhythm of Phrosine's name over the top. "Ariodant" is full of the rich, warm, slightly melancholy cello sound which will be familiar to anyone who knows any of the few other Mehul works available on disc, particularly the symphonies. As the notes say, it is more of a "prelude" than an overture. Perhaps it's not entirely fanciful to find Wagnerian associations in the next overture too, the one to "Joseph", Mehul's popular Biblical opera. The middle section with its repeated motif and ritualistic, religious feeling almost seems to prefigure the prelude to "Parsifal", some seventy-five years in the future. "Horatius Cocles" is a rather austere overture in Mehul's so-called "iron style" with appropriate pre-echoes of Beethoven. "Bion" is utterly different, a joyful dance of an overture making sparkling use of a full array of woodwind. A worthy companion to Cherubini's famous "Anacreon" overture, it is probably my favourite work on the disc. "Le Jeune Sage et le Vieux Fou" is built round a contrast between the title characters: the "young sage" is portrayed by a wistful melody for flutes alone; the "old fool" by galumphing basses and cellos playing a tune resembling a peasant dance. "Les Deux Aveugles de Toledo" is another atmospheric piece, its suave, insinuating bolero and pizzicato accompaniment successfully evoking Spain (without the use of castanets!). The last overture, "La Chasse du Jeune Henri" is probably the most famous and the most fun. A programme piece which was a big favourite with Sir Thomas Beecham, it portrays a hunt from dawn to noon, ending in whooping traditional horn calls.
Stephane Sanderling and the Orchestre de Bretagne have previously given us discs of other music from the neglected late eighteenth century period in France, by Gretry and Gossec. To my ears, they make a very good job of Mehul's overtures, though maybe they could do with a bit more bite in the stormier pieces. Highly recommended to francophiles and fans of early Romantic music. Let's hope one day we'll be able to hear some of the operas these overtures introduce.