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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Messe brève No. 5 aux séminaires [16:40]
Saint Cecilia Mass [44:24]
Christian Rathgeber (tenor), Tobias Rathgeber (tenor), Felix Rathgeber (bass), Daniel Beckmann (organ), Sabine Goetz (soprano)
Mainzer Domchor, Mainzer Domorchester/Karsten Storck
Rec. live 20-21 May 2019 (Messe brève) & 22-23 December 2018 (Saint Cecilia Mass), Mainz Cathedral, Mainz, Germany
RONDEAU ROP6181 [61:04]

This disc appears a little late, as the choir took on the main work, the Saint Cecilia Mass, as part of the 2018 bicentennial celebrations of Gounod’s birth, although it was recorded (live) only in December 2018, as part of that year's Christmas concert in Mainz Cathedral. Perhaps they awaited the performance of Gounod’s Messe brève the following year to make a filler for the disc. As usual with notes about Gounod’s sacred pieces, the booklet here refers to Saint-Saëns’ opinion that “In the distant future when inexorable time has completed its work and the operas of Gounod are forever in repose in the dusty sanctuary of libraries, the Messe de Sainte Cécile, the Rédemption and the oratorio Mors et Vita will still retain life”. The booklet does not mention that this has proved exactly wrong, and that for most music lovers Gounod is principally associated with opera, and with Faust above all.

But the young Gounod won the inaugural Prix de Rome, and was able to study Palestrina and the major Baroque composers while in that city as a result. On his return to France he became a church organist and choir director, conducting the largest male choir in Paris, the “Orphéon de la Ville de Paris”. His earliest surviving works are several Mass settings of the 1840’s before his operatic debut in 1851, and he even studied for the priesthood at this time. Even after the success of Faust (1859) he remained an active religious composer, with a work list of eighteen pieces entitled “Messe” and several oratorios and motets. In fact there are few genres he did not work in. There are for instance over two hundred songs, an aspect of his work that has been heard increasingly on recent recordings, more so than the choral pieces perhaps.

The Saint Cecilia Mass (Messe solennelle en l’honneur de Sainte Cécile) dates from 1855 and is generally regarded as among the finest of his sacred pieces, and was an instant success, as again Saint-Saëns eloquently observed: "The appearance of the Messe Saint-Cécile caused a kind of shock. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously….At first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered”. Gounod scored the mass for a very large orchestra including six (!) harps, and the Offertory is a purely orchestral “invocation”.

The serenely flowing Kyrie with its tripping string accompaniment shows at once the benefits and drawbacks of this performance. The soloists (who have fairly few solos) blend well in ensemble, but the choir, attractively caught at first has not always quite enough focus, presence and definition between sections, when the textures get fuller and more complex. This is hardly surprising with large forces in a large ecclesiastical building. Also anyone who knows the work from its 1984 EMI recording under Georges Prêtre and more to the point its French choir, fruity sopranos and all, will need to adjust to the sound of a large choir of boys and young men. Not that it is somehow made Lutheran – Mainz Cathedral has a Catholic denomination and the repertoire of these musicians includes such devout Catholics as Haydn and Bruckner! There is a long musical tradition and training and about 400 musicians of different types are associated with the place. Overall, the Mainzer Domchor sounds well-drilled and inside the idiom.

The fine Sanctus has a lovely tenor solo at first, when Christian Rathgeber sounds plangent and devout, but he is more taxed by the cruelly high notes after his second entry – a passage for studio retakes rather than caught live. The very full texture of choir and orchestra at the climax sounds muddied here by the cathedral acoustic. There is a little unsteady solo singing from the soprano at the start of both the Gloria and the Benedictus. The Domchor boys on the top line are a bit diffuse launching the Agnus Dei, but sing with good tone and rhythmic discipline through most of the work, and their conductor, Domkapellmeister Karsten Storck, has a good feeling for the right tempi for big forces in a big acoustic and makes heroic efforts to achieve the right balance. The organ sound has fine presence and depth.

The disc opens with the more obscure Messe brève No. 5 aux séminaires from 1872. This is written for a three-part men’s choir, and is very well sung by the men’s choir of the Mainz choristers. It is mostly straightforward and homophonic, and the smaller forces and simpler textures suit this acoustical setting much better. The three Rathgebers (brothers?) blend ideally, and organist Daniel Beckmann relishes the fine instrument of Mainz Cathedral, some of the contributions from which will put any subwoofer you possess through its paces. This is a valuable addition to the disc and quite a contrast to the more spectacular Saint Cecilia Mass. The booklet has some useful background on composer, music and artists and full texts and translations into German and English

But most of those looking to add the Saint Cecilia Mass to their collection should investigate that Prêtre EMI disc with its fine soloists, or the Bavarian Radio one led by Jansons on BR Klassik (recorded live in 2007) which was very well reviewed on MWI. Jansons has a Schubert Mass as a coupling, but the EMI has nothing else at all. If the all-male choral tradition appeals – and Gounod was very familiar with it – this Mainz performance has much merit. As a celebration of the composer’s art this has a few limitations, but it does serve to showcase the work of an impressive cathedral choir.

Roy Westbrook

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