Grétry, Gossec, Méhul, Jadin - a lost generation of French/Belgian composers, all but obliterated between the generations active under the reign of Louis 15 (Rameau, Couperin) and Berlioz, the music of Mozart-Haydn and that of the Romantic generation. As the liner notes rightly put it, Grétry's life (1741-1813) spanned a period from the death of Haendel to the birth of Wagner It's hard to imagine that, among those, Grétry was the most famous, if not the inventor (Monsigny and Philidor were there first) but at least the greatest champion of "Opéra comique", in an era and a country that thirsted for it.
Why these composers, despite the huge fame they enjoyed in their days, were rapidly overshadowed is easy to understand listening to this disc of Overtures, excellently played by Orchestre de Bretagne under Stefan Sanderling: while writing music that was far more fluffy than Mozart's, and less witty and knowledgeable than Haydn's, Grétry's overtures remain entirely rooted in the "classical" and operatic style of the Ancien Regime, but with none of the orchestral inventivity and dazzling virtuosity of the early operas of Rossini, and no traces of evolution even towards even the anticipitation of romanticism that the more dramatic "Sturm und Drang" style represented. . Even when there are traces of drama, as in a short passage of the overture to "L'Amitié à l'épreuve" (track 12) (Friendship tested), it is short, and furthermore it sounds faked, a pretence of anger that doesn't fool the friend for a second. Other than a short passage of tempest music in the overture to Le Jugement de Midas (track 4), integral with wind machine, and an interesting variety of moods in the overtures to Le Magnifique (track 21) and William Tell (track 22), this is always entertaining, but light-weight, opera comique indeed, the music equivalent of cotton candy, agreeable on the ear and leaving little trace after. In fact I hear more genuine merriment and substance in the symphonies of Gossec, maybe because it has time to really develop in symphonic style (see for instance my reviews of Gossec: Symphonies - Premier Recording and Gossec: Symphonies, Oeuvre XII). But no wonder Rossini swept all that to oblivion. For sweeping and irresistible fun and "joie de vivre" on the Paris stage, Grétry was sent at once back into a bygone era. No reason for not enjoying the music on its own, and however modest, merits.
Oustanding liner notes, TT 70 minutes.