Cherubini: Missa Solemnis / Munich Motet Choir
Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842) spanned the era of the first Vienna school, composing operas when young and Masses when old. He was to some extent a one-hit wonder: His 1816 Requiem in C Minor is a masterpiece, one that Beethoven asked to have played at his own funeral. Medée was popularized by Maria Callas (in an Italian version, as Medea ) in the 20th century, and it hangs around for that association, but Cherubini’s finest opera is Les Deux Journées , a “rescue drama” so filled with gorgeous music that Beethoven stole much of it for Fidelio . There are many other fine Cherubini works (none more so than this Mass), but none of them are individual enough to have carved a place in the repertory. On the surface, he seems a shadow hovering through the period, outshone by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. So it was, but his music does have an easily recognizable, highly personal characteristic, a hint of modality seldom found among his three great peers. Many performances play down that character, choosing to emphasize the similarities with Beethoven; this is unfortunate, as it often produces second-rate Beethoven (which we don’t need) rather than first-rate Cherubini.
All of which leads to Riccardo Muti’s lifelong devotion to the composer. He has recorded one opera ( Lodoïska ), five Masses (one twice, on CD and DVD), and both Requiems over a span of three decades. For many of them, there is no alternative recording; for others, the competition comes mostly from semiprofessional groups—rightly called amateurs, for their love of the music. Muti’s way has undeniable attractions: top orchestras, soloists, and choruses; fine EMI recorded sound, with a master hand at the tiller. None of them can be criticized, but they tend to embody the Cherubini-as-Beethoven syndrome, so alternate views are always welcome. In Fanfare 25:4, I praised Muti’s recording of this D-Minor Mass as a shelf-clearer (my highest compliment), claiming that three earlier recordings, Newell Jenkins on Vanguard, this 1992 one (then on a Calig disc), and that by Hemuth Rilling on Hännsler Classics, “demonstrated the strengths of the work, but each had minor failings of its own and left this listener unsatisified.”
I don’t remember my exact objections to the Calig disc, but this time around I like the performance very much. It has a warm joy that contrasts with Muti’s cool intensity. Both choruses are large ones; Hans Rudolf Zöbeley’s choristers sing their hearts out; so do Muti’s when the mood strikes them (or him). Soloists are seldom important in Cherubini Masses; Zöbeley’s are recorded up close and are strong enough to make the most of that; Muti’s are more distant and make less of an impression. Both are all-Munich productions; neither the Munich Symphony nor the Bavarian Radio Orchestra plays particularly well (a surprise in any Muti recording), and the recorded sound is a bit bloated and unclear on both CDs. Both have the Latin text; Muti’s EMI disc (5 57166 2; there has been a reissue I haven’t seen) has an English translation as well. Despite similar tempos, the Zöbeley runs 13 minutes less than the Muti, three minutes of that in each of three sections of the Gloria. There might be times when I would prefer a 66-minute Cherubini Mass to a 79-minute one, but PC requires a nod to Muti. You should find this a most rewarding Mass no matter which recording you hear; I can’t offer a compelling reason to buy a second one or to switch allegiances.
FANFARE: James H. North
Catalog Number: PH11060
Label: Hänssler & Profil
Composer: Luigi Cherubini
Conductor: Hans Rudolf Zöbeley
Orchestra/Ensemble: Munich Motet Choir, Munich Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Helena Jungwirth, Monika Wiebe, Rodrigo Orrego, Wolf Matthias Friedrich