Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Messe solennelle de Ste Cécile
Irmgard Seefried (soprano)
Gerhard Stolze (tenor)
Herman Uhde (bass)
Czech Chorus, Prague
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Igor Markevitch
rec. June 1965, Rudolfinum, Prague
Nineteenth century French composers had something of a penchant for Solemn Masses which, to ears used to Bach's Mass in B minor or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, were not in the least solemn; famously, in the case of that naturalised Frenchman Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle, not small either. Anyone who approaches Gounod's mass expecting a vast, lofty, uncompromisingly serious sonic edifice is in for a surprise - though whether a shocking or delightful one will depend on the individual listener. I would think that it will also be a considerable surprise to most people that Gounod, who is essentially remembered today only for Faust and Roméo et Juliette, wrote thirteen masses, eight oratorios and large-scale cantatas and three requiems. Saint-Saëns, for one, believed that Gounod's greatest works were his religious ones, and that they would long outlive his operas.

For much of the nineteenth century, French composers saw no essential difference in the style appropriate for the stage and the church. Only in the 1870s did reforming voices, instigated by the great organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and first put into operation by César Franck, banish the opéra-comique from the choir stalls. Gounod's Messe solennelle de Ste Cécile was written in 1855, so long pre-dated these reforming ideas.

The performance re-issued here is a famous one. It was not the first recording, that distinction had gone to the recording conducted by Jean-Claude Hartemann which was issued the year before. The present one was generally considered better, largely because it was more "serious" in its approach. Markevitch was certainly not the first conductor who would spring to mind for this work but he undoubtedly gives it a spirituality to which the, arguably more authentic, lighter style of Hartemann does not aspire. In many places Markevitch's tempi are considerably slower than those adopted by Hartemann or Prêtre in his 1984 recording but to my ears they always work.

The soloists play a comparatively minor role, but they are also a most unexpected bunch. Irmgard Seefried is perhaps least so; her light, clear, Mozart voice is reasonably close in sound to a French soprano, and the lovely poise of her singing makes her contribution a delight. Quite what was going on in the mind of the person who employed the notorious Mime in the Solti Ring as the tenor, or Bayreuth's great Flying Dutchman, Telramund and Klingsor as the bass is beyond my imagining. I suppose it is luxury casting of a sort, but it is not successful. In the "Domine, non sunt dignus" Stolze croons the music in exactly the same way that he sang Mime's duplicitous attempts to persuade Siegfried to drink the poisoned soup. His very Teutonic Latin pronunciation does not help matters. Uhde, who died of a heart attack on stage only four months after this recording, has almost nothing to do, but makes a workman-like job of it. The choir and orchestra are very fine.

I have always loved this piece. I make no claims to its being a masterpiece, but if approached without unhelpful preconceptions about what a "Solemn Mass" should be like, you may find that you love it too. It may only be a soufflé, but where's the harm in that?

Paul Steinson

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