Charles Gounod started out writing sacred music
and in fact nearly became a priest. He wrote his first Requiem
Mass at the age of 24 when it was premiered in Vienna and commended
by Mendelssohn. But his first opera came along in 1851 and from
then on he ran the two careers in parallel, with each rather
spilling over into the other. So that there is a rather religiose
element to Gounod’s operas and his sacred music can perhaps
seem a little theatrical.
He ceased writing operas in the 1880s and composed only sacred
music. In response to the death of a grandson he wrote another
Requiem in 1893. It was intended for concert performance by
the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire who
premiered it in 1894, though Gounod was not present as he had
died whilst working on the vocal score of the work.
It is laid out for choir, orchestra and organ and this disc
seems to be the work’s first recording. The performance
is given by the Maitrise des Hauts-de-Seine who are the official
Children’s Chorus of the Paris Opera. Founded in 1970
they are France’s leading children’s chorus. Gounod’s
mass is written for 4-part chorus so we get young voices singing
tenor and bass which gives the piece an attractively light tone,
though it does mean that sometimes the heavier sections seem
to lack weight. The choir are accompanied by the Paris-based
Orchestre Bernard Thomas.
Gounod’s choice of movements is rather interesting; he
sets the Introit and Kyrie as a single episode,
then followed by the Dies Irae, Sanctus, Benedictus, Pie
Jesu and Agnus Dei. He does include the Dies Irae
movement, unlike Fauré, but he omits the Offertory
which is generally set by composers.
The work opens with an atmospheric orchestral introduction,
followed by the chorus effectively muttering the Introit
and Kyrie in hushed tones. The Dies Irae has moments
of grandeur and some power, alternating with melodic sentimentality.
What the movement seems to lack is a feeling of shock and awe.
Whereas Fauré wrote his Requiem Mass to console, Gounod’s
seems to be written from the point of view of someone who was
entirely sanguine about the hereafter. For me the work has neither
terror nor anguish. It seems far too comfortable, and certainly
there is little sign of the operatic Gounod we might have been
The Sanctus opens in some grandeur, with the Benedictus
giving a number of opportunities for the soloists. Gounod tends
to use the soloists more as a semi-chorus rather than allocating
them big aria moments. The adult soloists Hubert Dény
and Gilles Vitale are joined by unnamed boy soloists, one of
whom get a big moment in the Pie Jesu. Finally the Agnus
Dei gives us some lovely melodic orchestra writing.
It was only on repeat listening that I realised what gave the
work its rather curious and distinctive sound qualities. Whilst
the orchestra contributes some lovely melodic moments, the choral
writing is almost exclusively homophonic. The result is that
the choral writing comes over as rather dull at times. I am
uncertain whether this is because Gounod was wanting to achieve
a particular effect or because he was uncertain of the qualities
of the choir which would be singing the first performance. The
piece does exist in versions for smaller forces which suggest
that Gounod had in mind practical performances in a liturgical
context. Certainly, given the length of the movements and the
choral writing, with organ accompaniment it would suit a liturgical
Both choir and orchestra acquit themselves creditably, though
there are occasional moments of stress. I am not certain that
the disc is quite the show-piece for which the choir might have
hoped, but certainly anyone interested in Gounod’s final
mass can buy this happily.
An unknown treble gives a rather underpowered account of Gounod’s
Ave Maria and finally organist Pascale Mélis plays
the Marche solennelle pour orgue, a piece which simply
reminded me of everything I don’t like about Gounod’s
The CD booklet includes full texts and translations, a short
article about Gounod and his music, plus artist biographies.
The disc is, however, rather short at only 46 minutes. The CD
suggests that it is the first recording of the work. Searching
Gramophone I found references to another recording from the
Church of the Madeleine, which was reviewed in 1980.
If you really want some of Gounod’s sacred music on disc,
then you would be best starting with the St. Cecilia Mass
which is by far is finest Mass. But if you are attracted by
his sacred music then this recording of his final Mass merits
attention. I am not sure, however, whether the performance is
of sufficiently riveting quality to make it of general interest.