Hector Berlioz Messe solennelle John Eliot GardinerHector Berlioz
Messe solennelle

Donna Brown, soprano; Jean-Luc Viala: tenor, Gilles Cachemaille: bass-baritone

Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Philips, 1994

This is the world premiere recording of Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle, which had been considered lost until 1992, when the autograph was found accidentally in an Antwerp church.

The Messe Solennelle is one of Berlioz’s earlier works, composed on the model of the Masses by Luigi Cherubini and Jean-François Le Sueur in 1824, when the composer was just twenty, and was performed only three times between 1824 and 1827. After that, it disappeared from the repertoire and Berlioz himself affirmed to have destroyed it, except the Resurrexit, together with other early compositions, which, according to his memoirs, included an opera, a cantata and a Latin oratorio.

The opportunity to listen to the Messe after two centuries of oblivion it is a fortune indeed, but we must not overlook that this is an early work, and as such should be considered within the cycle of Berlioz’s musical maturation. On the one hand, therefore, the Messe Solennelle predicts some inclinations that the composer will develop later and sows “tunes” that will flourish in the Requiem, in the Symphonie fantastique, in Benvenuto Cellini and the Te Deum; on the other hand, it is clear that the composer was at the first experiences of composition and was not yet able to fully express a musical idea. I mean that the individual tracks of the Messe are fairly homogeneous if considered alone (though even here some internal “deviations” are often perceived), but, taking the work as a whole, you may notice a certain oscillation of styles and inspiration, as if the young Berlioz did not know where to focus his attention.

Beyond this, it seems to me that Berlioz wanted to convey a serene idea of religion, as it is clear in the real explosions of joy of Quoniam and Resurrexit and as it is suggested through the rest of the mass too, so that at least here an intention to unity is recognizable, even if the music has been unable to realize it.

The execution of John Eliot Gardiner, who directs the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, is really beautiful, meticulous and charming, and makes use of a three fine soloists (soprano, tenor and bass, parts covered respectively by Donna Brown, Jean-Luc Viala and Gilles Cachemaille), as well as the Monteverdi Choir, which is magnificent. Chorus, soloists and orchestra work together to develop a solemnity that has nothing terrible or scary, but that has rather a touch of youthful freshness, which is the best way to bring to life this composition, to overlook its limits and to present it in a pleasant way, as actually happens.

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