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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Coronation Mass (1825) [50:47]
Marche réligieuse (1825) [5:11]
Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. 1985. DDD.
Texts and Translations included.
EMI CLASSICS 49302 [56:00]



Listen to this superb performance and you will surely understand the admiration of this composer expressed, at various times, by such as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and even Berlioz. I say ‘even’ Berlioz because in his Memoirs Berlioz paints such an uncomplimentary picture of Cherubini. Cherubini was in his late sixties and a notoriously grumpy old man when Berlioz, as a passionate young student, had dealings with him. For Berlioz, Cherubini, head of the Conservatoire, represented the musical establishment to which he was simultaneously opposed and desirous of admission. Chapter Nine of the Memoirs contains the grotesquely humorous episode - and again there is an obvious symbolic dimension - in which Berlioz is chased from the library of the Conservatoire by a porter and Cherubini, “his face more cadaverous and basilisk-eyed, his hair bristling more angrily, than ever”. That (mis)representation of Cherubini, and the kind of language used in it, contrasts very vividly with some of the things Berlioz actually said about Cherubini’s music. Here he is, for example, on the Marche réligieuse, which gets a rapt performance on this CD:
 
“The Marche réligieuse represents mystic expression in all its purity, in all its contemplation and Catholic ecstasy. It breathes only divine love, faith free of doubt, serenity of spirit before the Creator. No earthly sound disturbs its transcendental calm which brings tears to the eyes of the listener. But such sweet tears that one is borne away beyond the simple artistic idea, any memory of the present-day world, and left almost unaware of one’s own emotion. If ever the use of the word ‘sublime’ needs to be justified, it surely can be when applied to Cherubini’s Marche réligieuse”.
 
In Chapter Twenty Two of the Memoirs Berlioz writes of the same piece, enthusing over “those exquisite long-drawn notes on the wind instruments which induce in the listener a strange ecstasy, the marvellous interweaving of flutes and clarinets”.
 
The Marche réligieuse was written to be played while Charles X took communion on the occasion of his coronation in the cathedral of Rheims on 29 April 1825. This was a thoroughly lavish occasion, designed to reaffirm the sacred nature of the monarchy. Charles sought to return to the old absolutist ideal of monarchy – a vision out of tune with the times and one of the reasons for his being overthrown only five years later in the July Revolution of 1830. For a king with such ideas of himself and his position, the Coronation had to be, to put it mildly, a grand affair. The music Cherubini composed for the Coronation Mass was certainly grand.
 
The Mass, indeed, is a kind of apotheosis of ceremonial music; it is positively monumental. Yet it is also genuinely moving and is far from merely pompous or rhetorical. The music is quite startlingly beautiful in places – as in the Credo, whether at the exquisite setting of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” or the brass-fuelled blast of triumph at “Et resurrexit tertia dia”. There are more than a few moments in this remarkable Mass when it is impossible not to think across, as it were, to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, written some seven years earlier. Though there are many stylistic differences – as well as a few resemblances – the sheer power and meaningful scale of Cherubini’s choral and orchestral writing makes such a comparison perfectly proper.
 
Riccardo Muti has done - and continues to do - great work for the reputation of Cherubini. Here his conducting is masterly, the control of dynamics and phrasing wonderfully expressive, his sense of the music’s theatricality - it might be better and  fairer to speak of the music’s dramatic qualities - perfectly judged, never merely showy and always in the service of the larger design of the whole. The work of the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra – whether in hushed and delicate passages or in grand climaxes – is exemplary throughout.
 
For all the efforts of Muti – and a few others – Cherubini is still seriously underestimated. Only a few areas of his output are heard with anything approaching regularity nowadays, and some never at all. A reissue such as this is surely a persuasive argument for further investigation.
 
Glyn Pursglove
 



 


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