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The Victorians liked their music to be big – and, generally, the bigger the better. Their X Factor was the oratorio; their Wembley Stadium the local town hall. It was a throbbing, hungry beast of a society that fed on choral spectaculars and, in order to keep it sated, the work of British composers was not enough.
Gounod was a long-term visitor to these shores – getting himself into a bit of a pickle with the English soprano and amateur social worker Georgina Weldon (the less said about that, the better; suffice it to say, not one of Gounod’s happiest times). As a man who espoused fifteen minutes of Bible-reading every day, Gounod’s thoughts were never far away from the next big brimstone-and-treacle epic that might have them cowering in the aisles. Mors et Vita (‘Death and Life’ – it doesn’t get any more broad brush) was premiered in Birmingham in 1885, and featured a judge, who sits on a throne, intoning his judgments. That judge (Judex) owns possibly the most beautiful music in the whole piece. It has certainly become a firm favourite with Classic FM listeners and the Judex tends to eclipse the rest of the work.
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra; Michel Plasson (conductor). EMI Classics: CDs 7544592.