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Muti Champions Cherubini, Again

available at Amazon
Cherubini, Masses, Overtures, Motets, R. Muti, N. Marriner

(released on September 14, 2010)
EMI 6 29462 2 | 481'23"
We have already written in praise of the music of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), one of the most beloved, long-lived, prolific, and largely forgotten composers of the early 19th century. Beethoven was an ardent admirer -- it was Cherubini's first setting of the Requiem Mass that was performed at Beethoven's funeral -- although Schumann, writing near the end of Cherubini's life, recognized him as a master, albeit of a style that had become part of the past. Berlioz, sparing no chance to disparage Cherubini in his Mémoires, found him equally old-fashioned, "the most academic of academicians, past, present, and future." (Mostly, Berlioz crossed swords with the older composer in his role as director of the Paris Conservatoire, although his Masses get a grudging good word.) Certainly, Cherubini's dramatic -- not to say operatic -- settings of the Mass were a distillation of Classical models like those of Haydn and Mozart and laid the groundwork for the essentially non-liturgical form of the Mass of the 19th century. The repetitions of text that elongate many movements, helping to create musical forms, and the dramatic contrasts, like the rocket of a "Resurrexit" movement following a solemn "Et sepultus est" in the Missa in F, for example, are familiar from Mass settings by Verdi, Berlioz, and others.

EMI marked the 150th anniversary of Cherubini's birth last year with this 7-CD set of mostly older recordings of Cherubini's Masses (only about half of what Cherubini finished, plus the two settings of the Requiem), overtures, motets (only a fraction of the two-score examples), and a few other miscellaneous pieces, priced to move at $30. Riccardo Muti's admiration for Cherubini is second to none, and these performances gleam with the loving care lavished upon them, with the Bavarian RSO, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. My own tastes would tend toward a performance on period instruments, like that of Boston Baroque, but it is difficult not to love these suave, heartfelt, Romantic (occasionally overblown) renditions. The Missa in F, dubbed the "Messe de Chimay" because it was composed after a visit to a village church in Chimay, where he was staying with the local prince, marks the beginning of the composer's late efflorescence in sacred music, after experiencing disappointment as an opera composer. In Chimay, Cherubini reportedly rediscovered his earliest training in counterpoint and the works of Palestrina, later writing a treatise on the subject. His striking settings of liturgical texts reach their apogee with the setting of the Requiem Mass for male voices only, a somber, monastic, but also full-throated work he wrote for his own funeral. The selection of overtures and other instrumental pieces, in performances from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, is a nice complement to the main course.

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