Bernius Conducts Cherubini’s “Messe Solennelle”

Carus83.512 cover

CHERUBINI: Messe Solennelle in D / Ruth Ziesak, Iris-Anna Deckert, sop; Christa Mayer, alto; Christoph Genz, Robert Buckland, ten; Thomas E. Bauer, bass; Kammerchor Stuttgart; Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart; Frieder Bernius, cond / Carus 83.512 (live: Schleswig-Holstein, July 21, 2001)

Luigi Cherubini wrote two sacred works that have retained some popularity down through the centuries, his Requiem and this Messe Solennelle which is actually his Mass No. 2. But whereas the Requiem has had seven recordings, by Matthias Grünert, Giulini, Bernius, Martin Pearlman, Muti, Toscanini and Diego Fasolis, of which the Toscanini is my personal favorite, the Messe has (to my knowledge) only been recorded five times, by Newell Jenkins, Hans Zöbeley, Muti, Helmuth Rilling and this new one by Bernius.

Now, I haven’t heard every other recording of the Requiem, and it’s quite possible that it is the best of the modern recordings (Arkivmusic gives only his recording its recommendation), but in the cause of fairness in reviewing I did sample all of the other recordings of the Messe and this one is clearly the best—and I say that in full view of the fact that Bernius’ orchestra plays with consistent straight tone, which I don’t really care for a lot.

The reason? The musical style.

When Toscanini’s recording of the Cherubini Requiem appeared in 1950, many music critics lambasted it for not sounding “pious” or “religious” enough, but nowadays the only complaint one has is that he strengthened the music by including a few bits from Cherubini’s Symphony. Otherwise, sonics aside, it stands up very well.

But these other recordings of the Messe, even the one by Rilling who really should know better, all sound too legato in their phrasing and most of the orchestras just sound too plush and mushy. The result is not just that the music lacks excitement, it also lacks the kind of musical “pointing” that the score calls for. And because the orchestral and choral textures are so much thicker and the style more legato, those other conductors completely miss not only the pointing of rhythm but also the finely attuned dynamics changes that Cherubini called for. He was a composer influenced at least partially by Gluck, and we all know how dull Gluck’s operas sound when they’re conducted with too much of a late-19th-century sensibility.

And not only does Berlius’ musical approach help the orchestra and soloists—all of whom, miraculously, have good voices—but it also helps greatly to clarify the choral textures, bringing out the counterpoint in a much cleaner style and helping us hear the way Cherubini played the different sections of the chorus against each other. As a side bonus, Bernius’ conducting also brings out the falling chromatics in the score with more telling effect.

Like many Masses written in the early 19th century, including Beethoven’s, the composers were not always really pious or devoted to Christianity. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when many around the world were realizing that the truly universal God was the God of creation and not some guy in the sky surrounded by angels and complicated myths set down in holy books to be read and believed without question. Thus this work is more of a dramatic musical creation than an act of piety. In fact, as you listen to this piece in this performance, you will realize sooner or later that it sounds pretty chipper for a mass, and not really solemn at all. As Wolfgang Hochstein puts it in the liner notes:

After a seemingly familiar beginning, melodic progressions and harmonic developments are led into new directions by means of unexpected twists, which for this very reason seem particularly imaginative and witty. In addition to familiar successions of sequences and cadences, dominant chords with a lowered fifth in the bass, diminished seventh chords, false cadences and sophisticated modulations are characteristic of the composer’s harmonic repertoire. No less important is the chromaticism, and subtle instrumentation lends many sections an exquisite sonority.

And Bernius brings all this out with his exceptionally clear, almost 3D conducting style without forcing the issue or making it sound as if he were exaggerating anything. Listening to the Muti or Rilling recordings is almost a chore; listening to this Bernius recording is a delight from start to finish. In addition, another startling fact about this performance is that it is the first issue of a live performance from 19 years ago. In a brief liner note, Bernius tells us how proud he was of this achievement and how much he wanted it to finally be issued. He also mentions that the total forces used in this performance was 80 musicians and singers. Somehow or other, he makes them sound like many more than that.

The only thing I felt lacking in this recording was bass response. The rather small chamber orchestra is clear in all of its sections, but the straight-tone basses inevitably lack richness of sound. Other than that, I was really delighted by this performance

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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