Gossec: Grande Messe des Morts. Diego Fasolis. Naxos 8.554750-51 (2001)

Grande Messe des Morts. Roberta Invernizzi (sop), Maite Arruabarrena (mezzo), Howard Crook (tenor), Claude Darbellay (bass), Gruppo Vocale Canteus, Coro & Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana, Diego Fasolis (+ Symphonie à 17 parties. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Wolf-Dieter Hauschild). 2 CDs Naxos 8.554750-51 (2001), barcode 636943475027







Grande Messe des Morts recorded 10 April 1998 in the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Lugano. Symphony recorded 16 January 1998 at the RSI Auditorium, Lugano.

The version of Louis Devos on Erato is better – and I haven’t yet heard Malgoire
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 8 September 2011

I first heard Gossec’s extraordinary Requiem off the French radio, in the 1980s, and bought the pioneering recording of Jacques Houtmann in the LP days (published then by Auvidis. It’s been reissued on CD by Koch-Schwann, CD 312041 K2, barcode 9002723130416, which I have also acquired since writing this review), but it is really the recording of Louis Devos, with period instruments (recorded in April 1986 and published by Erato in 1988, first edition ECD 75359) that became my reference for the piece). I later purchased the Capriccio version by Herbert Schernus conducting the Cologne period-instrument ensemble Cappella Coloniensis (recorded in 1980 but published on CD only in 1992, Capriccio  10 616) but didn’t do any comparative listening then. Since then, this version by Diego Fasolis at the helm of the (modern, and playing at modern pitch) Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, recorded live in 1998, was published by Naxos in 2001, and the French label K617 released in 2003 another live version, again on period instruments, conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire, K617152, barcode 3383510001529.

Five recordings make the Requiem Gossec’s most popular piece, and it is easy to understand why. It’s a masterpiece. Composed in 1760 when the composer was only 26, it signaled his breakthrough to public success. The influence of Gossec’s Requiem on Mozart’s has often been noted (just compare the Dies Irae, track 7, and Mozart’s Rex Tremendae), but listen to the Tuba Mirum, track 8, with its ominous antiphonal trombones placed at a distance: now I know where Berlioz got the idea from in his own Tuba Mirum from the Requiem: it is tantamount to plagiarism! The melismata of the “Te Decet Hymnus” (track 3) recall Mozart’s Mass in C, and the violence of “Mors stupebit et natura” (track 9) falls somewhere between Haydn’s Nelson-Mass, Beethoven’s Glückliches Fahrt and again Berlioz’ Requiem. And, why not? I hear adumbrations of Verdi’s Requiem in the lyricism of the Recordare (track 11), and of Fauré in the appeased and, respectively, ethereal and pastoral quality of the “Requiem Aeternam” (rack 2) or “Pie Jesu Domine” (track 22).

The – literally – tremulating voices on “Quantus tremor” is a masterstroke (“What trembling there will be / When the Judge shall come”, at 1:46 into the Dies Irae, track 7). The plangent Recordare (with – normally – a trio of soprano, tenor and baritone, track 11, but more about that anon), with its ostinato, chaconne-like basso depicting (my interpretation) tears dropping, is the kind of music that can draw tears from me: if you know Marin Marais’ extraordinary Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont de Paris – this is exactly the same. The soprano duet on Lacrimosa, track 15, is as beautiful as those of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, or any written by Mozart in his C-major mass, many years before he composed it, and the touching tenor-baritone duet with chorus “Pie Jesu Domine” (CD 2 track 5) is another one of those sublime moments. The two tenor-baritone duets (the other is the “Cedant hostes”, CD 2 track 3), to which the Recordare trio with soprano can be added, are indeed one of the originalities of Gossec’s Requiem. I can’t describe all the beauties and wonderful touches of imagination of the music. This Requiem is an extraordinary work, worthy of standing on the same plane as Mozart’s Requiem and Mass in C or Haydn’s Nelson-Mass.

Given its worth, Gossec’s Requiem remains one of the most unjustly neglected masterpieces of music: what are five recordings in more than 30 years, compared to the inumerable quantity that Mozart’s own Requiem has received? And the score is not even available as a study score. Anyway, I’ve done a thorough comparative listening on the versions of Devos/Erato, Schernus/Capriccio and this one here, Fasolis – the two other CD versions entered my collection after I originally posted this review.

First thing to note: the differences in the editions performed are striking. The liner notes to the Devos (authored by himself) and Schernus CDs mention using Gossec’s autograph – obviously the same copy in both cases: it is kept at the Royal Library in Brussels – beside the one known printed score (from 1780, say all the scholarly sources; Devos however dates it from 1774), noting (according to Capriccio) that it is “in many respects far more plain than the version known hitherto, and also that the instruments are used more consistently in their timbres”. It seems, but is not entirely clear, that it is Gossec’s original version, later revised for publication, but Devos doesn’t clarify the issue by calling it “a new version of the Requiem itself, revised, abridged and reorchestrated by Gossec’s own hand”. In fact I am very puzzled when Devos further writes that “every bar was different and the final fugue completely crossed-out and re-written” (“complètement rayée et réécrite”, my own translation, the one provided in the booklet is ambiguous), which seems to indicate either that Gossec re-wrote a pre-existing version (itself in manuscript form, making that autograph a palimpsest?), which seems contradictory with the notion that this would be the original version, or that Gossec had second thoughts after jotting down a first version of the final fugue – a more likely interpretation. We are not told which edition Fasolis uses – presumably the printed score.

Anyway, mentioning that Schernus and Devos used the autograph for their performance only obscures the issue, since we are not told how exactly they used it and what exactly are the differences: did they perform the autograph or did they freely choose between autograph and printed score? And, when they performed from the autograph, are the differences only details not audible without the score, or more substantial? Those questions wouldn’t be raised if Devos and Schernus performed the same or a very similar version. But in fact, the differences are far more pronounced between them than between Devos and Fasolis, and I suspect that the sections missing in Schernus’ version (the Exaudi aria for soprano, track 3, the two big choral fugues on “Et lux perpetua”, tracks 6 and CD 2 track 7) are so not because of any observance of the manuscript, but simply as a result of the producers’ decision in order to fit the work on a single CD. Silly thinking, since, with a TT of 66 minutes, the CD could have easily fit 10 more minutes (indeed Devos’ is 74). On the other hand Schernus plays one number that neither Fasolis nor Devos perform: the penultimate and extended trio on “Lux aeterna”.

On the other hand, some of the differences involve not cuts, but Schernus (not Devos or Fasolis) performing entirely different, and much simpler settings (which may then indeed derive from the autograph), and thus seem to indicate that, in these numbers, Devos (like Fasolis) did perform the final and more elaborate printed version. If so, he made the right choice, since the simpler alternatives played by Schernus are far less interesting. Only on one occasion, in the orchestral introduction, it is Devos who plays a drastically shorter version, where Schernus and Fasolis play an extended one. And here again my hunch is that he does so not out of any manuscript, but to fit the Requiem on a single CD. I’ve spotted a few more minor and almost imperceptible cuts in the Devos version (in “Te Decet Hymnus” track 3, “Et Lux Perpetua” track 6, “Cedant hostes” Devos’ track 20 at 2:20), and I suspect that they were motivated by the same consideration. More regrettable is Devos’ omission of the orchestral introduction to “Vado et non revertar” (“I go and shall not return”), the first number of the Offertorium (track 18). Its weeping strings are a beautiful effect. They return inside the movement, but it isn’t the same thing. Strangely, only Fasolis’ chorus sings the quasi a-cappella line “voca me cum benedictis” on the two introductory chords of “Oro supplex” (track 14): it is very short, a single phrase. As announced by Devos’ presentation, it is not exactly the same fugue on “Et lux perpetua” as Fasolis that he plays at the end (Devos’ track 24, Fasolis’ CD 2 track 7), although it is comprised of the same building blocks.

Another difference between the three versions is their choice of soloists, and here, all three have taken different options, based on what authority I don’t know: printed score, autograph, or personal decision? To make matters even more complicated, I looked at my Auvidis LP of the Houtman recording (this one clearly based on the printed score) – and it adopts yet another combination, with five soloists: soprano and mezzo, contralto, tenor and bass. Schernus does without tenor and mezzo, attributing the part of mezzo to his alto (in the Lacrimosa duet) and everything that is sung by tenor with both Devos and Fasolis – even in the solo arias “Quid sum miser”, track 10 and “Spera in deo”, CD 2 track 2 – either to alto, to soprano or even, in the “Pie Jesu domine” duet (CD 2 track 5), to a section of the male chorus. It changes entirely the color wanted by Gossec, the relation of timbres in the duets (alto-baritone instead of tenor-baritone, to say nothing of chorus vs soloists), deprives Gossec’s scoring of its originality (how many soprano arias were written in the 18th century?) and lends it an unwelcome operatic color. But then, the very detailed liner notes to the Auvidis LP do call “Quid sum miser” an aria for contralto (why then does Fasolis, who had an alto, give it, like Devos, to the tenor?), and also say that “Cedant hostes” – sung as a duet for tenor and baritone by Fasolis and Devos, alto and baritone by Schernus – is written “for the chorus – whose soloists are highlighted” (“mis en valeur”): but then, alto and bass are credited as singing it in the track description. Also, the liner notes describe the Pie Jesu Domine that is sung as a duet for tenor and bass with chorus by Devos and Fasolis, and with a small section of the male chorus alternating with the large chorus with Schernus, as “written for the full orchestra and the voices” (meaning, the quartet of soloists)!

As for Fasolis, he does without soprano II, and attributes the second voice in the Lacrimosa duet, track 15, to the alto. It is tempting to think that the choice was made out of economical reasons: it is the only number where Soprano II is required. But I prefer here the homogeneity of timbre of Devos’ Bernadette Degelin and Greta de Reyghere to the contrast of Fasolis’ soprano and alto, although it is quite beautiful also with Invernizzi and Arruabarrena – you’d think you were listening to Pergolesi’s Stabat mater. On the other hand Devos does without alto, attributing to his tenor the part sung by alto in Schernus’ version of the “Quid sum miser” aria (and, as mentioned, Fasolis does too, track 10), but also in the “Te Decet hymnus” duet (track 3) and Recordare trio (track 11), where alltogether Fasolis, Schernus and Houtman use alto. Since Houtman does it that way, presumably the score instructs it, which makes it strange that Devos decided to spare on the alto but keep a soprano II who sings only in one duet! Houtman avoids that problem by sharing the various soprano parts (solos and ensembles) between his soprano and mezzo. I’m also puzzled by Fasolis’ Recordare trio (track 11). This trio has six stanzas and is in fact a succession of solos (soprano, then alto or tenor, then baritone), with a repeat of stanzas 3 and 6 by the ensemble. But while Fasolis has the alto sing second and fourth stanzas, it is the tenor who sings in the repeats of 3 and 6 (and I don’t hear the alto there). It doesn’t make sense: it would have been logical indeed for Gossec to write this 6-stanza trio for three singers, not four! This may be only of interest for musicologists, but for sure, Fasolis’ vocal combinations using alto are less original in those ensembles than Devos’ using tenor.

Schernus’ version is ruled out by his cuts, his selection of simpler and less interesting alternatives, his sacking of his tenor and his numerous other interpretive shortcomings (for all the details, and a slightly more balanced assessment – I’m giving here only the bottom line – see my extended review under the Capricccio disc). Of the two remaining versions, my choice is unhesitantly in favor of Devos.

Fasolis may be more complete, but, as indicated, Devos’ cuts are most of the times minor and almost imperceptible. The one he does in the Introduzione is more radical, but, frankly, given the funeral tempo Fasolis’ adopts there, Devos’ terseness (and with a similarly funeral approach) is much preferable. Drawing out the movement to 5 minutes, Fasolis way outstays his welcome and is off to a very boring start, Devos’ 1:20 sounds exactly like an introduction and, on its own, it sounds perfectly right. So my main quibble with Devos’ cuts is the loss of the 1:15 introduction to the accompanied recitative “Vado et non revertar”, with its movingly “weeping” strings, Devos’ track 18 (that’s how long it takes with Fasolis).

But these few cuts, independent of the fact that they’ve enabled Erato to fit the Requiem on a single disc where Fasolis takes one and a half, are more than made up by Devos’ interpretive superiority over Fasolis.

Fasolis’ sonics are more pungent and vivid (his few timpani outbursts in particular are really explosive, as the striking death knell that introduces the whole Requiem (curiously omitted by Schernus on Capriccio) or those in “Mors stupebit”, track 9, and the oboes and bassoons are very expressive throughout). Yet, Devos’ period-instrument strings sound leaner, more transparent, a bit acid but with much more character (and nowhere more than in the introduction to the Dies Irae, track 5). Fasolis’ modern strings are thicker and, Fasolis’ often romantically drawn-out tempos not helping, more sentimental (try the Introduzione, track 1, or the “Quid sum miser”, track 10). They are also distant and lacking intimacy in the Lacrimosa relative to the voices: with Devos, the strings sound like an equal dialoguing partner, not just an accompanying and supporting one (track 15). But in the same movement, Fasolis’ oboes are very vivid and expressive. Unless you can crank up the volume, Devos’ chorus sounds at times a bit distant and thus looses some of its impact (as in the extraordinary “Mors stupebit”, track 9), but it is also more transparent than Fasolis’. Fasolis’ chorus is more present, full and surrounding (Requiem aeternam, track 2), but that very presences lends it a romantic silk which doesn’t sound entirely right, and sometimes turns even to thickness and a degree of heaviness compared to Devos (as in “Mors stupebit”). Nobody can fail to be moved by Fasolis’ Faurean “Pie Jesu”, track 17, slightly more animated and thus dramatic than Devos’, but it really sounds like Fauré (e.g. very romantic) rather than like Gossec. With Devos the balance of chorus and orchestra is just right.

I also prefer Devos’ vocal trio. Devos’ soprano, Bernadette Degelin, is the purest- and most angelic-sounding, especially felicitous in “Exaudi” (track 4) and “Inter Oves” (track 12), although the voice, using vibrato very sparingly, may sound thin to those more accustomed to beefier operatic sopranos. In Exaudi Fasolis’ Roberta Invernizzi sounds a bit matronly in comparison. Invernizzi is fine in the Recordare (track 11), although a bit too operatically expressive in her second verse, Ingemisco (“I groan as an offender / My face blushes with guilt”). Heard on her own, Invernizzi is beautiful in “Inter Oves” as well, and her operatic timbre is perfectly in situation there.

If the quality of the tenor is your main discriminating yardstick, you’re not going to find much fodder here. Howard Crook is shared by Devos and Fasolis, and he is fine with both, although there is more youthful clarity in 1986, and the timbre is darker in 1998. Crook is also slightly more dramatic and operatic in 1998 in the accompanied recitative “Vado et non revertar”, and there are differences of detail in the ensuing aria – Fasolis’ tempo is slightly more animated than Devos’ -, but both are fine.

In the mighty and ominous “Tuba mirum”, Fasolis’ Baritone Claude Darbelly doesn’t have the vocal beef to pull it off, and he substitutes with some nasal and vulgar intonations. It is a Sarastro type of voice that this ominous music would call for, although Gossec wrote it for a higher tessitura than that (it descends very low as well). But Darbelly is better in his ensembles, the Recordare Trio (track 11), the “Cedant hostes” and “Pie Jesu” duets (CD 2 tracks 3 and 5), possibly because he is the lower and supporting voice rather than the exposed soloist (but it is not the case in the Recordare Trio, which alternates solos). Devos’ Kurt Widmer doesn’t have a very big voice, but it is firm enough, though not without traces of strain in the “Tuba mirum”. But truth is, Schernus’ Alessandro Corbelli on Capriccio is the best of all three, with more nobility and valiance than true might, but a beautiful and perfectly sustained voice throughout.

Some of Fasolis’ choices of tempo are disputable. I’ve mentioned his impossibly drawn-out Introduzione. Fasolis’ choral fugue in “Et Lux Perpetua”, track 6, is too smoothed-out and lacks angles. Although Devos’ chorus may not sound as smooth and grand, it has the right attacks and Devos is more dynamic. Likewise with the Requiem’s concluding Fugue (a variant of the previous one): Fasolis elicits a fine, brooding atmosphere in the Requiem aeternam introduction, and his final fugue starts well because, pitched a semi-tone higher, he sends his sopranos in the stratosphere; but again his chorus is thicker than Devos’ and his strings excessively romantic. Devos is again more energetic and incisive here, and ultimately much preferable. Fasolis’ elephantine tempo in the Sanctus (CD 2 track 4, Devos’ track 21) is not so much majestic (“maestoso” is Gossec’s indication) as funeral, betraying the meaning of the words: it is a pageant to God, “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth”. Devos has the required sense of exultation.

It’s not always so one-sided, though. With vastly different tempo choices the character of the “Agnus Dei” is radically different between Devos (track 23) and Fasolis (CD 2 track 6), more dramatic and almost an exhortation with the former, a plangent and subdued prayer with the latter. I like both approaches. Devos and Fasolis are both plangent and sentimental in “Quid Sum Miser” (track 10), and here it is Capriccio’s Schernus who is swifter, but the sense of soothing that his approach elicits is not entirely appropriate to the words (“who am I, a wretch, to speak”). In “Exaudi” (track 4), Devos is more plangent and funeral than Fasolis; in terms of what is expressed, Fasolis may be right: the words after all are not funeral, they are “Grant my prayer, to you all flesh shall come”. But then, the central bridge passage with flutes is incomparably beautiful at Devos’ reined-in tempo (1:50), and comes to not much with Fasolis (1:27). In the overbearing “Tuba mirum”, with its Berliozian antiphonal trombones (track 8), the sonic perspective is fine and ominous with Fasolis, but he takes the opening fanfare at a very deliberate tempo that threatens to make it loose all shape. But the rest is vivid and pungent. Devos’ sonic perspective and opening tempo are right, and again his leaner strings have more character than with Fasolis, but in the development his tempo is slightly cautious. Devos adopts a tempo that’s a bit static and solemn in the Lacrimosa (track 15). Although the duet is very reminiscent of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the words aren’t about the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross, but the prediction that tears will be shed the day the guilty rise from the ashes to face judgment, and you don’t need to weep to express that; the music is expressive enough that one doesn’t need to milk it. Fasolis is just right here. But I much prefer Devos’ swifter tempo in Judicandus (track 16) to Fasolis’ solemnized one. Fasolis’ Pie Jesu (track 17) is incomparably beautiful, thanks to the smoothness of his chorus, and the final fugue on Amen is great – but Devos’ is fine too. Fasolis’ VERY held back tempo in the orchestral introduction to “Vado et non revertar”(track 18) over-milks it and changes it into a dirge, but Devos, although he omits the introduction, is almost as slow. Maybe not an invalid option (“I go and shall not return”), but for once I prefer Schernus’ swifter tempo here, which conveys better a sense of emotional turmoil. But Devos and Fasolis animate better the ensuing accompanied recitative.

Devos has the magnificent Recordare just right (track 11), with its hypnotizing chaconne-like ostinato basso underpinning plangent, brooding whiffs a melodies from violins and bassoons, but Fasolis isn’t bad either. In “Confutatis maledictis” (track 13), Fasolis is, like Devos, suitably brisk but his strings are relatively smoothed-out and don’t reach the degree of violence of Devos’. His chorus does, though.

Ultimately then, though Fasolis may have some striking individual moments where he is as good or even better than Devos, overall it is Devos’ leaner and more characterful period instrument ensemble that is the most convincing. The version of the Symphony à 17 parties – Gossec’s ultimate symphony, from 1809 – that serves as a filler to the Naxos set is not likely to tip the scales. Same orchestra, other conductor: Wolf-Dieter Hauschild. Compared to Concerto Köln, on Capriccio 67 073, he is heavy-footed and thick-textured, with a sentimentalized Larghetto and an elephantine Minuet – you’d think he thought he was in the fugato of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica.

Anyway, I’m happy to keep both versions of the Requiem, but Devos is for listening, Fasolis is only for further reference. But all may change when I hear Malgoire – I’ve just ordered it [postscript from September 2017: …but, six yers later, not yet come around to listening to it: there is so much vying for one’s listening time! I need to live another 200 years…].

Comments are welcome