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
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 déjà vu. To confuse matters
further, this same conductor and orchestra also recorded the Puccini,
for the Erato label.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
imagine this being improved upon, but don't hold your breath.
Recommended for now, anyway.
Stephen Francis Vasta