Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass in lovely performance by Capital Choir

Capital Choir conducted by Felicia Edgecombe

Gounod’s Messe-solennelle-Sainte-Cécile, and a miscellany of choral songs

Central Baptist Church, Boulcott Street

Tuesday 5 July 7.30pm

I’d only heard about this performance of the most famous of Gounod’s masses a few days earlier and was at once animated by the prospect. Though previous experiences of the choir hardly led me to expect them to tackle a reasonably large-scale liturgical work of this kind, I was excited in anticipation and my hopes were well met.

The concert was dedicated as a benefit for a Christchurch choir with which Capital Choir had made contact – the South Brighton Choral Society, two of their members had been flown to attend the concert, they spoke about their situation  and they returned with a cheque for the balance of the takings. The Christchurch choir is the main choir of the city’s astern suburbs, which have suffered the worst damage from the earthquakes.

Capital Choir is an all-comers’ choir of around 60 voices, mostly sopranos; if there are some voices that would hardly survive in a small ensemble, the skill of their conductor, Felicia Edgecombe, lay in creating a most impressive, homogeneous sound that was balanced and generally in tune.

While I waited for the Gounod, the choir entered singing chant-like the words ‘Viva la musica’, and the first half consisted of a handful of light items: Franck’s Panis angelicus, two songs by conductor Edgecombe and three popular songs – The Girl from Ipanema, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and When the Saint go Marching in. They were sung with energy and evident enjoyment and it was clear that great pains had been taken to achieve first-rate ensemble, and to created an effect that was warm and opulent; the more problematic male voices, fewer, as usual, in number, were nicely integrated. Vocal production seemed always unforced; what was missing in the last group perhaps was a little of that elusive ability to swing.

They were ably accompanied by the choir’s pianist Belinda Maclean.

By the time the Mass began I was well prepared, as a result of their singing of the near contemporaneous Panis Angelicus, for a performance that would vocally beguile the ears. The Kyrie indeed did that, reassuring me of the choir’s ability to do justice; the soloists were the next question, and the opening page of the Gloria set me at rest for the soprano solo was taken most capably by erstwhile pianist Belinda Maclean whose accompanying duties in the Mass were taken over by Rosemary Russell. (Naturally one missed the orchestra, especially in the instrumental Offertorium, so essentially an orchestral interlude, but the ears soon accept the situation. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Gounod had scored it for a large orchestra – as well as double woodwinds, it calls for four bassoons and four horns, pairs of trumpets as well as cornets, organ with pedals, and six harps). Baritone Rhys Cocker took a very attractive ‘Domine Deus’ section of the Gloria, followed at the ‘Qui Tollis’ by tenor Chris Berentson whose voice sounded rather tight at first but soon relaxed, notably in his solo at the opening of the Sanctus.

The Credo is the longest section and the one that has been subject to a certain scorn, ‘swaggering’ for one writer, but which seems to me simply a fulsome statement of the composer’s at-that-stage anyway, touching and unclouded belief. The big tune is splendid and the confidence of its performance was infectious.

At the ‘Et incarnatus’, the three soloists take over alone, soon alternating with the choir: here, they did not quite achieve the expected hushed, mystical atmosphere that is called for, though at ‘Crucifixus’ a dramatic quality emerged; then one of the few moments of unsteadiness came with the ‘Crucifixus’. But vigour and confidence recovered fully at ‘Et resurrexit’, which even achieved a certain grandeur.

One has got somewhat used to the Sanctus anthologized by sopranos – notable Kiri – but the tenor is more authentic in a liturgical context, and as I said above, Chris Berentson dealt with it comfortably. It’s a lovely movement, majestic without bombast, and the choir performed it with considerable warmth and emotional variety: well rehearsed.

The Benedictus was the final opportunity for the soprano; with a voice somewhat tremulous, whether incidental or intended, Belinda Maclean’s singing was far from inappropriate at this stage of the mass.

Throughout most of this early work (well, he was about 35 but had not yet made a great mark as composer), Gounod maintains a dignity and authentic expressive power, but in the Agnus Dei he seems to succumb to something that weakens the spiritual atmosphere, breaking up the normal rhythm of the words so as to diminish their sacred import; there is something routine about the melody that takes charge in this movement. As well as the choir continued to sing, they hardly overcame the diminished dignity with which the composer’s first masterpiece concludes. At least it is not prolonged and ends without undue flamboyance.

During much of the 20th century it became fashionable to deprecate Gounod’s works that had been so popular in the mid-19th century, especially, after some of the facts of his life and his character became widely known. In recent decades the balance has been largely restored, not only for  the best of his liturgical works, but more especially the ‘other’ operas such as Sapho, Le médecin malgré lui, Mireille,

The Saint Cecilia Mass had made a real popular impact at its premiere in the great church of St Eustache in November 1855 only six months after the premiere there of Berlioz’s Te Deum. In some parts of Europe, Munich for example, the mass was more esteemed than any of the operas, and it was certainly the composition, preceding Faust by about four years, that brought him emphatically to the attention of the general public.

A quote by his (non-believer) friend (for the most part) Saint-Saëns is interesting:

“The appearance of the Saint Cecilia Mass caused something of a stir. Its simplicity, its grandeur, its serene luminosity rose over the musical world like a dawn, and embarrassed many people… Rays of light emanated in floods from the Mass.”