GOUNOD: Requiem in C Major; DVORAK: Mass in D Major – Anne Bretschneider, sop./ Christine Lichtenberg, alto/ Holger Marks, tenor/ Georg Witt, bass/ Hye-Lin Hur, organ/ Rundfunkchor Berlin/ Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin/ Risto Joost – Carus

GOUNOD: Requiem in C Major, Op. Posth.; DVORAK: Mass in D Major, Op. 86 – Anne Bretschneider, sop./ Christine Lichtenberg, alto/ Holger Marks, tenor/ Georg Witt, bass/ Hye-Lin Hur, organ/ Rundfunkchor Berlin/ Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin/ Risto Joost – Carus 83.386 (1/13/15), 72:17 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Both Charles Gounod (1818-1893) and Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) remained religiously devoted individuals, and their respective requiem and mass bear witness to a highly personalized version of the liturgy. The Gounod opus constitutes his last work; and, aware of the dire context of his composition, Gounod expressly forbade its premier at his own funeral. The first performance, on the anniversary of Gounod’s death, fell on the following Good Friday to conductor Gabriel Faure (17 October 1894). Dvorak’s attempt to do “justice to the Praise of Almighty God and the Glory of our Art” originally bore a scoring for vocalists and organ alone, intended for the dedication of a castle church in Luzany on 11 November 1887. At the insistence of the publisher Novello, Dvorak orchestrated the work in 1892.

Gounod sets his Requiem in six sections, following the French tradition that includes a Piu Jesu in lieu of a Benedictus; he omits an Offertory, which French practice often replaced with an organ interlude. The most substantive section, the Sequence – with its abbreviated Dies Irae – includes a lovely arioso for soprano Bretschneider. The opening Introit et Kyrie must be among the most gentle realizations of the oncoming of death in the repertory, certainly a model for Faure’s equally benign vision. The C Major tonality itself testifies to a beneficent sensibility to this otherwise morbid occasion. The stunning organ pedals, supported by harp arpeggios, underlines the faith in the peaceful essence of eternal rest, especially at key lines, “salva me, fons pietatis.” A brief but illumined Sanctus leads to a sweet duet and chorus for the one included Benedictus, whose “hosanna in excelsis” glows with unearthly light. A chromatic, serpentine bass line announces the Piu Jesu in duet, proceeding modally until the harmony blossoms into major. The final Agnus Dei et Communion – particularly the sustained solo from organist Hye-Lin Hur – brings closure to a truly refined work of utmost piety, which Giuseppe Verdi praised for its “language of the soul. . .to throw itself in love and penitence into the arms of God.”

Dvorak’s Mass manages to combine a large formal structure with his special folksy syntax – especially in Dvorak’s disposition of wind instruments within the context of reduced instrumental forces – in his melodic invention conceived throughout as a pious hymn of praise. A distinct sense of illuminated piety infuses this genial work, known as the “Luzany Mass.” The Gloria, which itself subdivides into a Laudamus te and a series of motet episodes, enjoys a transparency that conveys serenity of spirit. Listen to the exalted polyphony of Quoniam tu solus Sanctus for something like “learned simplicity.” The wind instruments themselves add to the feeling of festive appreciation, evident in the Credo, which sounds like a choral wind serenade that periodically sings a cappella. At the premiere, recall, Dvorak’s own wife Anna sang the female solos, along with the wife of Prague architect Josef Hlavka, Zdenka.

Recorded 2-8 January 2014, these two choral works, superbly produced by Florian B. Schmidt, testify to the deliberately modest but exemplary, pious visions of two masters of the choral medium.

—Gary Lemco

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