Back in the day, the hallmark of any up-and-coming composer was winning the Prix de Rome, the notoriously conservative Conservatoire competition that conferred on the victor a stay at the Villa Medici and an entrée into Parisian musical circles on his – and until Lili Boulanger came along in 1913 it was always a ‘his’ – return.
For all his youthful facility, it took Gounod three tries to carry off top honours, and although Fernand – a triangular romance between a Muslim maid, her lover and her would-be Spanish ‘protector’ – was his winning entry, it’s his previous, bolder (and therefore less likely to please the po-faced adjudicators) attempts that impress, especially the dramatic Marie Stuart et Rizzio. Along with La Vendetta, a tale of Corsican dirty deeds, these appealing, lyrical works receive persuasive advocacy from Hervé Niquet and his Flemish forces.
The second disc of choral music demonstrates some of the fruits of Gounod’s Italian studies including a gorgeous, unaccompanied Messe Vocale and a portentous, Berliozian Hymne Sacrée (inspired by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as we are told in the insightful 150-page book that accompanies the discs). Best of all is the Messe de Saint-Louis-des-Français, a thoughtful and dramatic by turns mass setting for the church of the French community in Rome.
None of these works appear to have been recorded before and all are worthy of exploration, especially in performances as distinguished as these.