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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Messe Solennelle H20 (1824)
Adriana Gonzalez (soprano); Julien Behr (tenor); Andreas Wolf (bass)
Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2019, La Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles.
Latin text, English & French translations included.
ALPHA 564 [51:19]

I well remember the stir that was caused in the early 1990s when a setting of the Mass by Berlioz, presumed lost, turned up in Antwerp. The story is worth retelling. In 1991 a teacher, Frans Moors, was in search of an early edition of Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Mass and his researches took him to the church of St Charles Borromeus in Antwerp. There, to his amazement, he found, in an old chest, among all the other old music gathering dust, a score which was inscribed “Messe Solenelle À Grand Orchestre et à Gds Chœurs Obligés par H. Berlioz, Elève de M. Lesseur”. A further inscription confirmed that this score, in Berlioz’s own hand, was presented by the composer to one A. Bessems. It turned out that Bessems was a violinist who spent time in Paris and who played for Berlioz. The score of the Mass eventually passed to his brother who was in charge of the music at the church of St Charles Borromeus. Presumably the brother, who died in 1892, didn’t appreciate the significance of the score – why would he? – and as a result it didn’t see the light of day for another hundred years. This information – and more – is contained in the booklet that accompanied the first recording of the Messe Solennelle, of which more in a moment. The Mass was first performed in the church of Saint-Roch, Paris in 1825 and there was a further performance in 1827 but it seems that Berlioz was dissatisfied with the music and, with the exception of the ‘Resurrexit’ section of the Credo, he withdrew the work and may well have destroyed the performance materials. However, Berlioz recycled quite a lot of thematic material from the Mass and listening to it now is somewhat akin to playing ‘Name that tune’.

The Mass achieved its first modern performances in October 1993 at the hands of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir. The last performance in their short sequence of concerts was given in Westminster Cathedral in London and a terrific live recording of that performance was issued by Philips in 1994. I bought it as soon as it was issued and was amazed by what I heard. I’m not sure that Gardiner’s recording is still available as a single disc, though I think it’s included in at least one boxed set. I believe there have been a couple of other subsequent recordings but I’ve not encountered them. This new recording by Hervé Niquet is very welcome, therefore. I was interested to read in the booklet that Niquet references the Gardiner recording not only as his introduction to the work itself but to far more: “this juvenile Berlioz opened the door to his entire œuvre for me”, he writes. This recording fulfilled what was for him a long-held ambition. I’m not entirely sure if the recording was made live; Alpha’s documentation is imprecise on this point, though one of the booklet photos suggests it may be a live recording.

It’s been most interesting to compare and contrast the Gardiner and Niquet recordings. Gardiner uses larger forces, no doubt to suit the spacious acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. As an indication, the Monteverdi choir includes 22 sopranos with the rest of the choir in scale with that. Niquet, by contrast, has just 11 sopranos and, once again, the rest of the choir is in scale. Interestingly, Niquet’s choir includes three Haut-contre singers. The orchestral forces are similarly contrasted, with Gardiner deploying 14 first violins, for example, while Niquet has eight. Both orchestras, of course, use period instruments. One other point of differentiation is that Niquet’s singers use French pronunciation of the Latin text whereas Gardiner’s singers do not. The result is some vowel sounds in the Niquet performance which may disconcert Anglo-Saxon listeners. I’m certain Niquet’s approach is authentic but as a matter of personal taste I don’t find the vowel sounds sit easily. The Gardiner recording was made in a spacious acoustic and the performers seem to be a little distant from the listener. Niquet’s recording is closer with the performers in sharper focus. I can see pros and cons for both approaches. I like the Philips sound but on the other hand Niquet’s closer recording means that he achieves even more clarity than Gardiner at times, such as in the fugue of the ‘Quoniam’ movement.

Berlioz opens proceedings with a short, imposing orchestral introduction which segues into the Kyrie. In the Kyrie we encounter the first theme that will be familiar to listeners from later works. The movement uses material that Berlioz would later use – and to even better effect – in the Offertoire movement of the Grande Messe des Morts. In this first version, the music is much more restless than it was to be later in the Requiem; it’s very effective. The Christe (from 2:33) is at first more relaxed and flowing. I may be wrong, but in this episode, I detect a pre-echo of the ‘Ballet des sylphes’ from La Damnation de Faust. The music gradually acquires greater urgency until Berlioz returns to the Kyrie. This time, however, the music from the movement’s opening is much quicker and the tempo accelerates further until the music is almost frenetic. I have to say that this doesn’t really work for me despite the vivid projection of Niquet and his forces.

The Gloria is in three sections. It opens jubilantly and then at ‘Laudamus te’ we hear a melody which Berlioz would later employ in the carnival scene of Benvenuto Cellini; it’s effective in the present context, though I dislike the repeated “pecking” notes which Berlioz requires his sopranos to sing at times, imitating what’s going on in the orchestra. The second section is the ‘Gratias’, which has a lengthy orchestral introduction. The movement is founded on a melody which found its eventual home in the ‘Scène aux Champs’ movement of Symphonie fantastique. Here, there’s a marked difference between our two conductors with Gardiner adopting a much broader tempo than Niquet – to my ears Gardiner’s speed relates the music much more closely to Symphonie fantastique. Just to give you an idea, after the orchestral introduction, Gardiner’s choir begins to sing at 1:55; the same point is reached at 1:17 in the Niquet account and when his singers are heard the music has a distinct one-in-a-bar feel. Personally, I’m more persuaded by Gardiner’s tempo but I readily admit that may be because at this pace the music vividly recalls Symphonie fantastique. On the other hand, Niquet’s light, airy approach is very attractive. Finally, there’s a fugal movement, ‘Quoniam’. It seems that Berlioz didn’t think much of his own efforts in this movement because he scrawled across the front page “cette exécrable fugue doit être réécrite” (this execrable fugue must be re-written). Niquet does his best for the movement, performing it with high energy.

The Credo has four sections. The opening is proclaimed by the bass soloist – the first solo voice we have heard. Andreas Wolf, Niquet’s soloist, makes a very strong impression, commanding our attention. After what sounds like a slightly hesitant first two or three notes Gilles Cachemaille also does a fine job for Gardiner. In due course the soloist is joined by the choir and the music becomes even more powerful. Niquet’s performance is a fine one. ‘Incarnatus’ features both the soprano and bass soloists. Here, we’re in calmer musical territory. I’m not convinced by the quasi-operatic approach of Adriana Gonzalez. She sings with far too full a vibrato for my taste and the words are very indistinct until Andreas Wolf joins her. I don’t feel Ms Gonzalez’s style is appropriate to the music. For me, Donna Brown (Gardiner) is much to be preferred. She is clearer of voice and diction. Her voice is smaller than Ms Gonzalez’s instrument and Brown’s greater delicacy is more suitable here. The ‘Crucifixus’ has a very dramatic opening for the basses of the choir. Both conductors put this movement across strongly. The ‘Resurrexit’ begins with music of jubilant affirmation and then at the words ‘Et ascendit in caelum’ we hear a theme that is more familiar from the Te Deum (where it is set to the words ‘Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes’). Even more familiar – and imposing – is what happens at ‘Et iterum venturus est’. The brass fanfares and then the declamation for the bass soloist would be recycled – and greatly enhanced – later by Berlioz in the ‘Tuba mirum’ section of the Grande Messe des Morts. Andreas Wolf makes it a big moment on this recording – as does Gilles Cachemaille for Gardiner. Beginning at ‘Cujus regni non erit finis’ Berlioz uses a melody that later resurfaced in Benvenuto Cellini and makes it the basis for an exultant conclusion to the Credo. In this present performance the music is thrillingly urgent; Hervé Niquet ensures that the music blazes. Berlioz seems to have been more satisfied with this ‘Resurrexit’ movement than any other in the Messe Solennelle and after he had discarded the rest of the score, he performed a revised version of this movement as a stand-alone piece before incorporating the material into the Grande Messe des Morts. Gardiner’s disc includes the revised version as an appendix.

There follows an Offertory motet. Hugh Macdonald comments, in the booklet for the Gardiner disc, that the text is from Exodus, chapter 15 and he speculates that the music had its origins in an oratorio, Le passage de la Mer Rouge, which Berlioz composed in 1823 and later destroyed. The bass soloist is involved again here, along with the choir. The music is robust and dramatic; there’s nothing remotely devotional or contemplative about it. The Sanctus is vigorous and celebratory. On its own terms, the music suits the overall character of the Messe Solennelle. I have to say, though, that Berlioz made an infinitely better setting of the same words in the Grande Messe des Morts. The setting of ‘O salutaris hostia’ is founded upon a beguiling opening melody for divisi sopranos. The movement is relaxed and quite charming, showing Berlioz at his most ingratiating. I love the way twinkling harps add sparkle to the texture towards the end.

The Agnus Dei brings the tenor soloist into the spotlight at last. The music is very familiar as the ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ movement of the Te Deum and I think there’s a case to be made that this Agnus is the strongest movement of the Messe Solennelle. It’s surely no coincidence that of all the “pre-quotations” contained in the score, this is the material that was least altered when Berlioz revived it in a later work. Julien Behr sings marvellously for Niquet and although Jean-Luc Viala is very good on the Gardiner recording, I think Behr has the edge.

Following the French tradition of the time, Berlioz ended the Messe Solennelle with a movement, ‘Domine, salvum fac regem nostrum’, setting a text in praise of the monarch. All the forces apart from the soprano soloist are deployed here. The music is very forthright and positive; everything is at full tilt. It’s a bit tub-thumping and obvious, but the only way to deliver it is to meet the music head-on and that’s just what Hervé Niquet and his colleagues do.

The Messe Solennelle is an uneven work but it’s fascinating to hear so much of Berlioz’s future output in embryo. And what confidence – nay, swagger – the twenty-year-old composer shows. Despite its rough edges, the places where the seams show, and some episodes that are less inspired, the work as a whole is a very notable achievement. For all its unevenness and occasional gaucheries, it seems to me that it’s a score that gives us a vital perspective on the young composer and the way in which at least some of his future music was grounded. Every single idea that was subsequently recycled is shown to better advantage in his later works but you’d expect that. Where the fascination lies is in hearing these ideas in their original context. But Messe Solennelle is far more than a musical sketchbook; it’s a significant composition in its own right and one, moreover, that shows that while he may have been an iconoclast, Berlioz was still highly conscious of tradition: the debt to the likes of Cherubini is obvious.
Hervé Niquet is an exceptional advocate for the work. The Gardiner performance has the excitement of a surprising new discovery about it; Niquet builds on that excitement, I think, and performs the work with fervour. The Gardiner recording still has a key place in the Berlioz discography but this newcomer ranks proudly alongside it. And, of course, the Niquet performance has the not inconsiderable merit that it’s readily available as a single disc.

The recorded sound is excellent, presenting the performance with clarity and impact. Alpha’s booklet includes a useful essay about the work by Bruno Messina although Hugh Macdonald’s essay that accompanied the Gardiner disc is far stronger, not least in pointing out the thematic references to works which lay in the future. Messina also all but ignores the story of how the score came to light once again.

One can’t overlook the fact that Alpha’s disc offers rather short measure. On the other hand, the real value here lies in the music and in the quality of the performance and for that I think Berlioz devotees will be prepared to overlook a short playing time. If you already know the Messe Solennelle from Gardiner’s superb pioneering disc, this new version is well worth hearing for the fresh perspectives it offers. On the other hand, if you have the Berlioz ‘bug’ but have never heard this remarkable early score then I urge you to investigate this compelling Niquet performance without delay,

John Quinn

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