Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Requiem Mass (1893) [36:06]
Ave Maria (1859) [2:57]
Marche solennelle pour orgue [7:33]
Hubert Dény (bass)
Gilles Vitale (tenor)
Pascale Mélis (organ)
Maitrise des Hauts de Seine
Choeur d’Enfants de l’Opera National de Paris
Orchestre Bernard Thomas/Françis Bardot
rec. February 1996, Church of St. Clodoad, Saint Cloud, France.
FORLANE FOR16759 [46.42]
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 expecting.
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 context well.
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 sacred music.
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.  

Robert Hugill 

If you are attracted by Gounod’s sacred music then this recording merits attention. Otherwise not of general interest.