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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Mass in C minor, Op.147 Missa Sacra* [39.32]
Four songs for double chorus, Op.141 [18.31]
Amandine Trenc (soprano),* Marianne Crebassa (mezzo),* Cyrille Dubois (tenor)*
Les Cris de Paris choir and orchestra*/Geoffroy Jourdain
rec. Refectory of Royaumont Abbey, 27-28 September, 2-3 October 2011
APARTE AP 044 [58.05]

Schumann’s Mass in C minor first appears to have surfaced in the record catalogues in a 1987 EMI recording by Wolfgang Sawallisch with Bavarian Radio forces. This did not survive long in the lists and has only been intermittently available since despite being praised by the critics. It is currently to be found as part of an EMI Classics Gemini double disc (50999 0946 350900 2 4) and on a 9 CD box of the Schumann choral works (50999 63152029). In fact listening to that recording now, one finds it a rather ponderous traversal of a work which has always been rather under a cloud.
 
Received wisdom has been that Schumann’s choral music, written towards the end of his life, and under the shadow of imminent mental illness, lacks the freshness of his earlier works. Well, the world is not precisely short of choir-and-orchestra settings of the mass from the nineteenth century, and it must be admitted that Schumann’s Missa sacra is probably not among the best dozen or so of them. However, in a performance like this, it comes up fresh as a daisy. A simple comparison of the opening of the Gloria with Sawallisch serves to display the difference a performance can make. With Sawallisch the music is slightly slower, much more massive, and more resonant with the chorus set rather far back in the audio spectrum. Here the music bubbles with life, and the smaller forces nevertheless manage to give the sound plenty of body without the chorus being overpowered. The recording brings just the right sort of rapt religious ecstasy to the beginning of the Sanctus and the acoustic suits the music perfectly. Some of the scoring here (for example the solo bass trombone at track 5, 9.23) reminds one of the Berlioz Requiem, which Schumann may well have heard during Berlioz’s conducting tours of Germany in the 1840s.
 
Where Sawallisch does score is in his more eminent soloists, but even here this new issue has nothing to fear. The three singers may not be as well known as Mitsuko Shirai or Peter Seiffert, but they have personable voices and present their relatively short solos well. This performance, like that by Sawallisch, includes the offertorium Tota pulchra es which Schumann added after the first performance when he published the work in a version with organ accompaniment. Sawallisch had Shirai to sing this; here we have a mezzo-soprano, Marianne Crebassa (the part does not go above F), whose warmer tone brings a more romantic and emotional feel. One textual oddity: the bass solo O salutaris hostia in the Sanctus (track 5, 5.37) is here sung by the basses of the chorus. This works well, and is perhaps justified by an ambiguity in the score; while the first entry is marked ‘solo’, when the chorus echoes the words the bass line lacks the indication ‘chorus’. One could therefore argue that the indication ‘solo’ indicates a solo line for the choral basses rather than a single voice, although I suspect that the direction ‘chorus’ eighteen bars later was simply omitted from the score by accident.
 
The disc is completed by four songs for double chorus which Schumann wrote three years earlier. These are more conventional partsongs in the standard nineteenth century romantic mould. Although the use of a double chorus produces a somewhat richer sound, the settings of the texts are primarily homophonic and make minimal use of antiphonal effects.
 
This performance misses a point when (at track 7, 4.36) Schumann indicates the brief use of a solo quartet juxtaposed against the choir; the full choir is simply employed throughout, although there is no ambiguity here in the marking of the score. The Orpheus Vokalensemble and the Netherlands Chamber Choir in their respective recordings make a beautifully mysterious effect by strict observance of Schumann’s precise directions. The final song asks for a low C from the basses in the final bars, but one would have welcomed more subterranean definition here.
 
Despite these occasional concerns, this issue is a pleasure throughout. The singing of the choir is confident, and the orchestra in the Mass has plenty of life. There are other versions of all these pieces in the catalogue, but I cannot imagine that any of the alternatives would be significantly better than this. The recording is immediate but has plenty of atmosphere.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 


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