Gossec: Messe des Morts. Cappella Coloniensis, Herbert Schernus. Capriccio 10 616 (1992), (SACD) 71 403 (2005)

François-Joseph Gossec: Messe des Morts. Eva Csapó (soprano), Hildegard Laurich (alto), Alessandro Corbelli (baritone), Kölner Rundfunkchor, Cappella Coloniensis, Herbert Schernus. Capriccio 10 616 (1992), barcode 4006408106166








(SACD) Capriccio 71 043 (2005), bc 4006408710431 (also 845221005973):







Recorded 25 September 1980 at the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal

An extraordinary work, worthy of any choral work of Mozart or Haydn – but not in this cut and interpretively flawed version
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 6 September 2011

François-Joseph Gossec’s Requiem (“Missa pro defunctis” or “Messe des Morts”), composed in 1760 when the composer was only 26, signaled his breakthrough to public success. It is easy to understand why. The influence of Gossec’s Requiem on Mozart’s has often been noted (just compare the Dies Irae and Mozart’s Rex Tremendae), but listen to the Tuba Mirum, 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” recall Mozart’s Mass in C, and the violence of “Mors stupebit et natura” falls somewhere between Haydn’s Nelson-Mass, Beethoven’s Gluckliches Fahrt and again Berlioz’ Requiem. And, why not? I hear adumbrations of Verdi’s Requiem in the lyricism of the Recordare, and of Fauré in the appeased and, respectively, ethereal and pastoral quality of the “Requiem Aeternam” or “Pie Jesu Domine” (the latter, part of the Sanctus).

The – literally – tremulating voices on “Quantus tremor” is a masterstroke (“What trembling there will be / When the Judge shall come”). The plangent Recordare (with trio of soprano, tenor and baritone), 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 Lacrymosa 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” is another one of those sublime moments. The two tenor-baritone duets (the other is the “Cedant hostes”, last number of the Offertorium), 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.

Not that the Requiem is a much-performed and recorded piece – nothing near Mozart’s or Haydn’s great choral masterpieces – but if number of recordings gives any clue, it is Gossec’s most popular work, with five recordings that I’m aware of. The first was still in the LP days, by Jacques Houtmann conducting the Liege Symphony Orchestra; it has been reissued to CD by Koch-Schwann, CD 312041 K2, barcode 9002723130416. [Addendum from September 2017I had it on LP, and since originally writing this review in 2011 I found the CD edition at a reasonable price, but I haven’t yet played it]. The present Capriccio version, with the dean of Cologne’s “period-practice” ensembles, Cappella Coloniensis under Herbert Schernus, though made in 1980, was released only in 1992. So it is really the recording of Louis Devos, first published on CD by Erato in 1988, that became the entry point in Gossec and reference for the work.

Later came Diego Fasolis (recorded live in 1998, published by Naxos in 2001, Naxos 8.554750-51) and Jean-Claude Malgoire with his Grande Ecurie et Chambre du Roy (in 2003 on the French label K617, label number 152, barcode 3383510001529). The ensuing comparison is based only on Devos and Fasolis, the Malgoire and CD edition of Houtmann entered my collection only after I had completed 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.

Anyway, that both Devos and Capriccio mention using 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 only 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 the differences between them are much greater than between Devos and Fasolis (who doesn’t tell us which source he uses, so I assume it is the printed score), and I suspect that the sections missing in Schernus’ version 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). And if they are indeed missing from the autograph, than Devos was right to retain them, because their absence from Schernus is a great loss. On the other hand, some of the differences involve not cuts, but Schernus (not Devos or Fasolis) performing indeed entirely different, and much simpler settings, and thus seem to indicate that, in those numbers, Devos (like Fasolis) did perform the final and more elaborate printed version. 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 I suspect he does so not out of any manuscript but to fit the Requiem on a single CD. I’ve spotted a few more minor cuts in the Devos version, and my hint is that they were motivated by the same consideration.

Why Schernus omits the opening timpani roll in the Introduction (Devos, like Fasolis plays it) is an open question and although it is a detail, it is regrettable: its death knell color is a striking effect. But there are more radical cuts in Schernus.

The Exaudi (a soprano aria) has entirely disappeared (it would have been track 4), and it is a bad mis-judgment, given the beauty of the aria, and also out is the fugal Et Lux Perpetua (after the repeat of the Requiem Aeternam, track 4), although, in both cases, the text IS printed in the booklet. It also prints the ensuing Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison from the Requiem text, although the booklets and performance of Devos and Fasolis seem in agreement here that Gossec didn’t set them to music. The repeat of the Requiem Aeternam that Schernus plays (track 4) is also an entirely different, and, this time around, more extended version than the one performed by Fasolis and Devos. Strangely, only Fasolis’ chorus sings the quasi a-cappella lines “voca me cum benedictis” on the two introductory chords of “Oro supplex” (Schernus’ track 12). Schernus also plays a few transitional bars between the Judicandus and the Pie Jesu (track 14), but not Fasolis or Devos.

One wonders where the “Lux aeterna” trio placed in penultimate position comes from: it is played neither by Devos nor by Fasolis, and it is a substantial, almost 5-minute long number (track 21). On the other hand, Schernus plays a short, solemn, abrupt and not very distinctive setting of the words “Requiem aeternam” as a conclusion (track 22). Instead, as a conclusion, Devos and Fasolis play a more beautifully appeased and “Faurean” short setting of the same words, by way of introduction to a variant of the Et Lux Perpetua fugue that followed the repeat of the Requiem Aeternam – a much more convincing ending, both musically (it is another substantial and mighty fugue) AND for the meaning it conveys: it is not eternal rest that is the final word, but perpetual light.

Among those numbers that are simpler and may derive from the autograph score, Schernus’ “Inter oves” (track 10) is an entirely different composition from the one played by Devos and Fasolis, a simple, plangent recitative for baritone rather than an extended and rather joyous Mozartean aria for soprano: same words, radically different character. The baritone recit is introduced by a few measures of strings that, in the version played by the two others, form the bridge from that soprano aria to the next number, the Confutatis maledictis. The Pie Jesu and final Amen from the Dies Irae section of the Requiem (track 14) is also an entirely different composition from what Fasolis and Devos perform – much shorter, more dramatic but not nearly as beautiful as their touchingly angelic and appeased Pie Jesu, and ending abruptly on the Amen, instead of developing a great and mighty Bach-like final fugue.

Whatever their reasons and possible justifications, those cuts (and I include the simpler and less interesting alternatives played by Schernus among them) are not compensated by the few and minimal additions, and are alone enough to rule out his recording. No great loss: interpretively, it is also the less satisfying version of the three. First, Schernus and the Cologne radio must have been on a tight budget, because they took the strange decision to dispense with the required tenor, and, in his stead, to substitute, alternately, soprano or alto. Truth is, I’m not sure to what extent they’ve departed from the score, because the very detailed liner notes of the Houtmann LP (a version unambiguously based on the printed score) do describe the “Quid sum miser” (track 8) as an aria for contralto (although Fasolis who, unlike Devos, had an alto at his disposal, attributes it, like Devos, to tenor). Where Schernus does like Fasolis and uses alto (“Te Decet Hymnus” duet with soprano and chorus, track 3, “Recordare Pie Jesu” trio with soprano and bass, track 9), I’ll presume (based also on the Houtmann liner notes) that they are both following score and that Devos (who uses tenor) strays. As for the penultimate “Lux aeterna” trio, track 21, I have no other version to check that one, since Schernus is the only one to play it (with soprano, alto and baritone), and the liner notes of the Houtmann LP are here incomprehensible, mentioning that “the vocal quartet is deprived of its soprano” (what is that, a convoluted way to say that it is written for trio of alto, tenor and bass?), while soprano, alto and bass but not tenor are credited as singing in the track description… There is also an ambiguity about the scoring of the “Cedant hostes” and “Pie Jesu Domine” numbers, tracks 17 and 19: they are sung by both Devos and Fasolis as duets for tenor, baritone and chorus, and they are beautiful. Schernus attributes “Cedant hostes” to alto and baritone, and in “Pie Jesu Domine” the soloists are so distant relative to the orchestra that I can’t even ascertain for sure who sings; I think it is two from the chorus, or perhaps more than two a part, and I do think it is the tenor (or tenors) singing the tenor line – at least in some parts (it may be mezzos in others, I’m not sure). But, to make matters even more complicated, the liner notes of the Houtmann LP attribute “Cedant hostes” to the chorus (“whose soloists are highlighted”, they add; but alto and bass are credited here in the track description), and “Pie Jesu” to “the full orchestra and the voices” (and the full quartet is credited in the track description).

Nonetheless, remains the accompanied recitative and aria “Vado et non revertar” and “Spera in Deo”, tracks 15 & 16, clearly attributed by the LP’s liner notes to the tenor, but sung in Schernus’ version by soprano. But, given the differences between the three versions (plus Houtmann), it is not so much the musicological considerations that count, as the musical results. And it that respect, it is not only in the two numbers unambiguously attributed by Gossec to tenor that the substitution of female voices loses one of the originalities of the two other versions. A soprano singing the “Spera in Deo” aria, track 15, may in itself seem convincing, but would even Cray XK6 be able to compute how many such soprano arias were written in the 18th Century? Likewise, the substitution of soprano in the preceding “Vado et non revertar” accompanied recitative not only adds a not so welcome operatic color, but also looses the nice underlying sense of a Bach Evangelist it has with tenor. As for the two duets given to tenor and baritone by Devos and Fasolis, they are incomparably more beautiful and effective that way – but, in the case of “Cedant hostes” (track 17), NOT so much because of the choice of soloists (although it totally changes the balance of timbres, two similar low voices instead of contrasting high and low), as because Schernus here plods to the point of expressive distortion (see hereafter). In the “Recordare Pie Jesu”, track 19, not only is the alternation of “concertino” (soloists) and “ripieno” (larger ensemble) lost by Schernus’ decision to attribute it to a section of the chorus, but also the beautifully appeased and Faurean atmosphere.

Last point on these substitutions: Schernus also does without the soprano II or mezzo required (based on the Houtmann LP) by the score, especially in the Lacrymosa duet, track 13, substituting here again the alto. Fasolis does the same, and, given that the soprano II or mezzo is required only in that duet, it seems indeed a more sensible (economic) decision than to have her but not the alto, as does Devos. Still, I find Devos’ two homogeneous timbres here preferable to Fasolis’ and Schernus’ contrasting ones, although the soprano-alto option, with its reminiscences of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, is quite beautiful in its own right.

Independent of the substitutions, Schernus’ vocal trio is a mixed bag. Compared to the angelic purity of Devos’ Bernadette Degelin (but some may find her vibrato-less voice too thin), soprano Eva Csapo sounds a bit heavy in the “Te Decet Hymnus” (track 3) and Lacrymosa duets (track 13), and there, apparently she and alto Hildegard Laurich were unable to trill in-sync, so they take their trills as 16th notes, Glenn-Gould-like, which sounds ridiculous (so does Gould when he trills that way). I have no such qualms with her contribution in the Recordare trio (track 9), although Invernizzi with Fasolis and Degelin with Devos are even more beautiful, and she is, of course, without competition in the “Spera in Deo” aria, track 16, since the two other versions give it to tenor. I can’t comment much on alto Hildegard Laurich, because whenever I hear her it is a tenor I want to hear. Truth is, in tracks 8 & 9 (“Quid sum miser” aria and Recordare trio), I first thought I did, because Laurich uses so much chest voice, and in the lower range it is uncanny how an alto using chest voice can sound like a light tenor. So it isn’t before 0:58 into “Quid sum miser”, when come the higher notes on the words “Rex Tremendae”, that I knew for sure that it was the alto singing, and not some uncredited tenor from the chorus. And I suppose it could be easily construed as a double-tongued compliment if I say that, in some spots, Laurich can well pass off for a tenor. The really good element in the trio is baritone Alessandro Corbelli, the best in the three versions, with perhaps more nobility and valiance than the true might you’d want to hear in the overbearing “Tuba Mirum” (track 6), but the voice is beautiful in its own right and perfectly sustained.

Cappella Coloniensis may be the dean of Cologne’s period-instrument ensembles (and for that matter, of any performing in those days, save perhaps Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien), yet their strings are plain, lacking the kind of incisiveness one expects from and enjoys with period-instrument ensembles. In the orchestral introduction to the “Dies Irae” (track 5), they sound smoothed-out and homogenized: Devos has incomparably more instrumental character here. Again, Schernus smoothes-out the string tremulations of “Mors Stupebit” (track 7), and the timpani, so explosive and effective with Fasolis, can barely be heard. Too bad, because Schernus’ chorus has the required violence here (despite a tempo that tends to plod), while Fasolis’ is powerful but a bit thick and heavy. Devos also has great instrumental character here, with piercing oboes, and appropriately raging phrasings, but because of its somewhat distant positioning, his chorus lacks a hair of impact. Schernus’ legatoizing of the chaconne-like basso in the Recordare (track 9) loses the sense of an implacable tolling that Fasolis and Devos capture so well. His strings are also distant relative to the voices and lacking intimacy in the Lacrymosa, thickening the textures (track 13). Schernus smoothes-out the choral tremulations in the Quantus tremor (track 5), keeping it in a silky sotto-voce that contradicts the meaning: we’re talking about terror, here! His chorus is usually thick-textured, and sometimes even covers the soloists.

The Berliozian antiphonal trombones in “Tuba Mirum” (track 6) sound totally artificial with Schernus, not so much surrounding you as previously recorded and over-dubbed in. Too bad, because Schernus’ swift tempo works fine here. But otherwise, his choice of tempos is often disputable. I do enjoy his swifter tempo in the Lacrymosa (track 13) and in the weeping “Vado et non revertar”, track 15, which conveys a fine sense of emotional turbulence – Devos’ more static and solemn approach, and Fasolis’ drawn out tempo in the latter really over-milk the respective emotion – although Schernus doesn’t really animate the ensuing accompanied recitative. There may also be something to be said in favor of his swifter tempo in the Introduzione (track 1), especially in comparison to Fasolis, who is so slow and long drawn-out as to outstay his welcome, but Devos (with cuts) captures perfectly that funeral mood – and it is the introduction to a Requiem, after all; by comparison, Schernus is more solemn and Masonic than really funeral. His swift tempo captures well enough the sense of exultation of the Sanctus (track 18) – Fasolis’ here is impossibly and inappropriately funeral (it is a paean to the Lord, “holy, holy, holy”) – but his phrasings are less incisive and his chorus thicker than Devos at an even more animated tempo. In the Agnus Dei (track 20) he shares with Devos a swift tempo, contrasting with Fasolis’ very slow one, conveying an entirely different character, dramatic and exhorting rather than humble and praying: both work, I find, but Devos draws much more expression from his strings, where Schernus seems to be merely playing the notes.

In “Te Decet Hymnus” (track 3), compared to Devos and Fasolis he sounds, depending on how you are disposed, grander, or plodding (I call it plodding). He may be swifter in the Quid Sum Miser (track 8) than the (here) plangent and sentimental Devos and Fasolis, but then the sense of soothing that his approach elicits is not entirely appropriate to the words (“who am I, a wretch, to speak”). Though his chorus is not devoid of power, compared to Devos he plods again in the “Confutatis maledictis” (track 11), and again he unduly sentimentalizes the “Spera in Deo” aria (track 16) through his plodding tempo. His ensuing duet, “Cedant hostes”, track 17, is literally under valium, and his chorus is thick and covers the soloists when they sing simultaneously. Gossec has written repeated choral explosions on the word “non” (“they shall NOT dare to oppose Him, NOT! NOT! NOT!”) of great expressive power; you won’t hear it here. “Foes” shall not so much “yield at His coming”, as fall asleep, it seems.

Until this duet I might have granted a not entirely negative welcome to this version, because, despite its bleeding cuts and interpretive flaws, something of the beauty and magnificence of Gossec’s Requiem did come through. But here Schernus sinks really low. Ultimately, given that Devos’ version is also on one CD and sells for shamefully cheap at the time of writing, I don’t see what interest there could be to buying the Capriccio disc: the trio that he is alone to perform? My first choice (until I listen to Malgoire) is, without hesitation and despite its own few cuts (far more minimal than Schernus’), Devos – and, mind you, for reasons musical, not because it comes on a single CD. I’ll keep Fasolis for its few outstanding moments and its completeness. But now that I’ve done this comparative listening, I’ll get rid of the Capriccio disc without regret: baritone Corbelli, the penultimate trio and Schernus’ few appropriate tempo choices are simply not reason enough to look back, in view of that version’s numerous and irretrievable drawbacks [postscript from September 2017: I kept it].

Comments are welcome