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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Messa di Gloria (1888) [55:34]
Stefano Secco (tenor)
Cosimo Diano (baritone)
Tölzer Knabenchor
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
St. Petersburg "Optina Pustyn" Choir
I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone
rec. Chiesa di San Francesco, Schio, May 2003
WARNER FONIT 5050467-1202-2-8 [55:34]



What have we here? A recently exhumed early liturgical work for chorus and orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists, by a composer famous for his operas. Since that capsule summary describes Puccini's Messa di Gloria, which first turned up on record some thirty years ago, as well as the present work, it's understandable if this album should provoke a feeling of deja vu. To confuse matters further, this same conductor and orchestra also recorded the Puccini, for the Erato label.

Beyond these superficial similarities, however, lie some equally obvious - not to say profound - differences. Puccini's Mass is, first and foremost, a choral piece: the composer has the chorus carry the weight of the musical and liturgical argument, reserving his soloists to highlight key moments - Gratias agimus, Et incarnatus est and the Agnus Dei. Mascagni, conversely, entrusts most of his Mass to the two male soloists, with the chorus making more or less ceremonial appearances at the beginning and end of major prayers, including the eponymous multi-movement Gloria. Even in what sound like good old-fashioned choral movements, such as the Quoniam, the soloists have their ample say.

Then there's the matter of compositional style. Puccini's score, predictably, points toward the great operas to come - indeed, bits of it eventually found their way, more or less intact, into Edgar and Manon Lescaut. But the young composer, his musical idiom not yet fully formed, experiments with bits of other styles as well - slashing brass fanfares of the sort he never used in the operas, and a marziale passage that could have come out of Gounod's Faust, not to mention an obeisance to oratorio convention with a fugue at the Gloria's "Cum sancto spiritu."

In Mascagni's Mass, hints of Cavalleria rusticana - composed three years later - crop up more than once: in the oboe's wistful descending phrases, in the surge of the climaxes. But he rarely ventures far from his already-recognizable operatic idiom, eschewing any such formal constructions as Puccini's fugue. There is, in fact, no imitative writing here to speak of. The choral textures are consistently homophonic - sometimes almost comically so, as in the Credo, where one senses the composer racing through the opening to get to the "good parts." The surprise is that, for all the operatic gestures, and barring the occasional lapse - the tenor's jaunty Et in spiritum sanctum could be a beer song - Mascagni nonetheless evokes an Italianate liturgical feeling, imbuing many of the lyrical passages with a simple, affecting dignity.

Warner's production, while better than make-do, is less than ideal. While this is not billed as a concert recording - and I hear no signs of an audience - much of the playing and singing bears the slight indiscipline typical of a one-time event: slightly ragged, imprecise attacks and releases - both within the orchestra and between orchestra and voices - and some lack of cohesion in the woodwinds, with a watery, diffuse flute getting away from the core sonority. The chorus seems small, with individual voices and varied vibratos occasionally making themselves felt.

Then there's the orchestra. Scimone and I Solisti Veneti made one of the best recordings of the more intimate Puccini Messa, but the chamber-sized ensemble can't quite rise to Mascagni's operatically scaled climaxes. The players never strain, or produce ugly tone, but I simply wanted more sound, from a bigger orchestra. We do hear some nice playing: those oboe solos are poignant, the cellos are rich and dusky in the Gratias, and the principal trumpet is gratifyingly steady and controlled, though the Qui sedes solo can't avoid mawkish cornet-like associations.

The soloists are satisfactory, with Stefano Secco sometimes better than that. He occasionally lets his sound "open" in the upper passaggio, in the manner of Italian (and American!) provincial tenors. But he understands the sense of music and text. His sings the Et incarnatus est tenderly and gently - as if in wonderment at the mystery of the Incarnation - with minimal discomfort, even when the music seems about to break into Turiddu's farewell. He's devoted at "Pleni sunt coeli" in the Sanctus, and quietly beseeching in the Laudamus. Incidentally, Mascagni apparently had his own ideas about Latin pronunciation. He breaks "La-u-da-mus" into four syllables, but condenses "Gra-tias" and "Fi-lius" into two, and also elides "de-pre-ca-tion-em." Baritone Cosimo Diano sometimes sounds nasal ("et in terra pax"), and sometimes clotted (in the "Et resurrexit"). He's better when he sings more brightly in the Agnus Dei, and he does match Secco nicely in their brief duet passages.

The engineering, too, is serviceable at best. In the Elevazione movement, the orchestral basses seem rather close; on the other hand, the chorus is backwardly balanced, blunting, rather than enhancing, the impact of the peak moments. There are some noticeable splices in the Agnus Dei. 

I can imagine this being improved upon, but don't hold your breath. Recommended for now, anyway. 

Stephen Francis Vasta

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