Why isn't Méhul a more recognized and recorded composer? Other than the occasional Overture, there had been less than a trickle of recordings of his symphonies in the LP era - most notably the 1st in 1954 (with cuts) by Rolf Kleinert conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra, now on Schubert: Symphony No. 6 - Scherchen Mehul: Symphony No. 1 - Kleinert or Mehul & Schubert Symphonies (a recording originally published, I think, on Urania, URLP 7109, paired with Mozart's Musical Joke under Mathieu Lange) and the 2nd in 1957 by Fernand Oubradous for the French branch of EMI Pathé (reissued on De La Revolution à L'Empire), but those were one-offs that triggered no particular interest of the music world. Then came the celebrations of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, which occasioned a rekindling of interest for Méhul, but that too was short-lived and nothing of note followed.
It would be a relief to think that it is because Méhul is a second-rate composer, an honest crafstman as the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th has produced hundreds, a minor figure whose talents deserve no more than a small bulge of interest once every 30 years.
But not so, and I simply can't believe that nobody in the music world, performers and producers, seems to have heard, or have been interested in the powerful dramatic impact of the First Symphony's opening Allegro, reminiscent of the last ones of Mozart or of Haydn's Nelson Mass, or the close stylistic similarities between the Second and Beethoven's first two symphonies, and likewise with the Menuetto of the First, in the latter case a similarity already noted by Schumann who wondered if Mehul had plagiarized the third movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or the other way around. As it turns out, none could have known the symphony of the other when they composed their own. As the French saying goes, "les grands esprits se rencontrent", "great minds meet". On the basis of these first two symphonies, Méhul deserves I think to be called the French Beethoven, even if he stopped short of the revolutionary developments Beethoven applied to the symphonic form (in length, impact, emotional content) from the Eroica onwards. It's not that Méhul's works display just good crafstmanship: they are strewn with touches of genius as well, flights of imagination that catch your ear and make him stand out from the throng of good crafstmen. It is not by mistake that his first symphony was praised by Schumann and played by Mendelssohn (in 1839 and 1846) and Reinecke.
To answer my question, "why?", why the lack of recognition, given the quality of these compositions: other than the performers' and producers' customary laziness and utter lack of exploratory spirit, difficulty to access scores and parts may be part of the explanation (although I'm not sure it is a determining factor. After all all these symphonies HAVE been recorded, and have been edited,, so scores and parts MUST be accessible somewhere). And I'll venture that the very reasons of Mehul's success in his lifetime might be those of his neglect today. The great composers of symphonies in the Romantic era were rarely great composers of operas, and the other way around. Cherubini, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner: not composers of symphonies. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler: not proficient or successful composers of operas (and of course the last three didn't even try). Only Spohr breaks the rule, but then Spohr looses all: posterity today recognizes him neither as a great composer of operas, nor as one of symphonies. So Méhul? During his lifetime Méhul met his greatest successes with his operas. But how can you give credit to a composer who wrote operas with titles so smacking of the Ancient Regime and pre-Romantic era as "Stratonice", "Ariodant", "Euphrosine"?
Of the less-than-a-handful of recordings of the symphonies that came out in 1988 and 1989 on the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the one on Nimbus with the Lisbon Gulbenkian Orchestra conducted by the French conductor Michel Swierczewski stands out, not only because it uses "Urtext" editions established by the British musicologist David Charlton, but principally because it includes the hitherto unrecorded Symphonies No. 3 and 4, discovered in 1979 by the same David Charlton (see my review of Mehul: Complete Symphonies). The two other recordings, this one by Marc Minkowski conducting his period-instrument ensemble Les Musicens du Louvre (originally published by Erato in their Musifrance series, Symphonies 1 & 2) and the one published by Marco Polo with the Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra under Jorge Rotter (Mehul: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, now on Naxos, Mehul: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2), featured only Symphonies No. 1 & 2 and, in the 2nd, used the old edition of Fernand Oubradous - not that the differences are audible to the lay listener.
So Swierczewski would have been the obvious recommendation, all the more so as it still sells today, almost a quarter-century later, very cheap. Unfortunately, as is made clear once you compare him to Minkowski and Rotter in the two shared symphonies, Swierczewski proves to be a disappointment, at least in the outer movements: trying, I suppose, to make Mehul sound "grand" (in the way Beethoven was played for grandeur rather than drive and ebullience in the pre-"Historically-informed" 1950s to 70s), in effect he only manages to make him sound thick, heavy-handed, sluggish, lacking tension and drama and often soporiphic - even more than the old Oubradous in the second symphony (both interpretations are in fact very similar, although there is a touch more drive with Oubradous) or than Kleinert in the Finale of the 1st Symphony. And the overly resonant church acoustics don't help, making the woodwinds and brass sound miles away from the strings. The Finale of the 2nd opens with a galloping timpani which is a great touch of imagination, but you can hardly hear it in Nimbus' sonics, you'll know it's there only if you listen to any of the competing recordings (and nowhere better than with Minkowski). In fact, even knowing that it's there I can't hear it with Swierczewski, only a vague rumble. I call it betrayal. Only the Menuettos of Symphonies 1 and 2 does Swierczewski conduct with zest, spirit, muscularity and drive, and there, in all fairness, he scores over the competition. He also shows a welcome and unlingering elegance in the Andante of Symphony No. 1.
But for the drive, the ebullience, the drama of these two works, go to Minkowski. Especially in the Finale of Symphony No. 1 and the outer movements of No. 2, it is day and night. I'd give the edge in the Menuetto of Symphony No. 2 to the more muscular and thrusting Swierczewski, but the only place where I'd really take exception with Minkowski's choices is in the Menuetto of Symphony No. 1 - the one that is so evocative of the third movement of Beethoven's 5th - where, surprisingly, he adopts a VERY pedestrian tempo. Maybe he was trying to underline the similarities with Beethoven's 5th (although the traditional and relatively slow tempo often adopted in the 3rd movement, and meant to slowly build up energy until the explosion of the finale, contradicts the very letter of Beethoven's much faster "Allegro" tempo indication and metronome mark), or maybe he was simply trying to be observant of the fact that the movement's time signature is an "Allegro moderato" 3/4 and not a 3/8, which implies a pulse by the beat and not by the bar. The effect isn't uninteresting, evoking some balletic tiptoeing, but it does feel very sluggish compared to the more driving approaches of Swierczewski or even Rotter.
Not enough to keep Minkowski's CD, among those devoted to the symphonies of Méhul, from garnering prime recommendation, although the music lover interested in Mehul and the music of the French Revolution should by all means invest also in Swierczewski's set, if only for the 3rd and 4th Symphonies (but also for the Menuettos of No. 1 & 2). And for those allergic to the slight acidity and lowered semi-tone of period-strings, the CD of Rotter offers a surprisingly valid alternative and should not be overlooked.