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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Messe Solennelle de Saint-Cécile [41:31]
Georges BIZET(1838-1875)
Te Deum [18:40]
Angela Maria Blasi (soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Münchner MotettenChor
Münchner Symphoniker/Hans Rudolf Zöbeley
rec. 1996, Herkuelssaal München, Germany

These two recordings were issued on the Profil label in 2006, the year they were recorded, and they make a welcome reappearance now on Hänssler Classics.

Has anyone composed a mass so full of instantly memorable tunes as Gounod in his Saint Cecilia Mass? Perhaps the answer is yes, but unlike say, Rossini, Fauré or Verdi, Gounod’s effort is rarely heard. It is certainly memorable and I’m tempted to say that, had he used its melodies in an opera, he would have had a success on his hands to rival that of Faust. In fact, it is easy to assert that much of the work sounds operatic. As such it requires first rate singers and it surely receives those in the recording. Angela Maria Blasi has a splendid, lyric soprano voice with a clear, firm top and an equally attractive lower register. The tenor Christian Elsner and bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel both studied under Fischer-Dieskau and are vocally quite splendid. Fortunately, the Münchner MotettenChor are also first-rate with a full-bodied sound and the same goes for the orchestra. The live recording captures everything the singers and orchestra put into this lovely performance, and there is no audience noise. However, there is one significant caveat in that the 1984 EMI recording of the piece, under George Prêtre, includes an extra two sections – a central Invocation-Offertoire and a closing Domine Salvum. The latter, lasting just 3.5 minutes, is in three parts and brings the piece to an effective, rousing conclusion that is missing in the Hänssler recording. Its central section sounds like an enormous army band, unsurprisingly given that the score entitles it as Prière de L’Armée. It would have made a fine ending to an opera but for a Mass? Well, perhaps this militaristic aspect provides the reason behind its omission in the recording under review.

I have rather less enthusiasm for the Bizet work. He composed it in Rome where he had won the Prix de Rome as a 20-year-old student. It is short and quite catchy and jolly-rumty-tumty sounding in the first two parts but in the first of these – the Te Deum – Bizet employs an ostinato to a degree that I find impinges on my notice just that bit too much for comfort. The third section Te ergo quaesumus provides welcome contrast, being long breathed and lyrical, and is sung to perfection by Angela Maria Blasi, whose plangent voice is quite superb. The last section ends with some of the music from the “Te Deum” (including ostinato). Bizet hoped to win a competition with the piece but, to his chagrin, failed. The booklet notes point out that he set the Latin accentuation incorrectly, and took considerable liberties with the traditional text, pointing up the fact that he had no religious convictions. No doubt the prize jury noticed these things.

Such considerations may not bother you and, if you want beautifully performed renditions of these two tuneful pieces, don’t hesitate.

Jim Westhead

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