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William Ferris Chorale: Menotti and Vierne
William Ferris Chorale
William Ferris, conductor
These spectacular live performances by the William Ferris Chorale are available as a mid-price release on the Cedille FOUNDation label from Cedille Records.“The William Ferris Chorale sang beautifully... they had style and a lovely sound... a superb job.”
(The Washington Post)
The acclaimed William Ferris Chorale celebrated its 35th Anniversary with this release of two of its finest performances.
Gian Carlo Menotti is best known for dramatically engrossing operas such as The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and The Medium. For his Missa “O Pulchritudo”, Menotti applied his operatic skills to create an unusually compelling setting of the Catholic Mass (much as Verdi did with his Requiem). In addition to its gorgeously alluring music, Menotti’s Mass setting is notable for a key textual change: in place of the traditional Credo movement, Menotti sets a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine that begins, “O Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved You.”
William Ferris and the William Ferris Chorale performed the Missa at the request of Gian Carlo Menotti, who was present for the performance. This is the only currently available recording of Menotti’s Missa “O Pulchritudo”.
With its sweeping melodies and harmonic grandeur, Louis Vierne’s Messe Solennelle has been called a triumphant counterpart to Fauré’s Requiem. This recording shows off not only the expert direction of William Ferris and glorious singing of the William Ferris Chorale, it also features two magnificent pipe organs: a rare, fully restored E.M. Skinner, and a tracker action Visser-Rowland.
Gian Carlo Menotti: Missa “O Pulchritudo”
“Bill, you love my Missa ... you’ll perform it for me, won’t you?” an agitated Gian Carlo Menotti implored William Ferris. It was at that moment on a sweltering summer afternoon in Charleston, South Carolina, that Menotti, upset over the way another conductor was interpreting his Missa, inspired the performance captured on this disc. Ferris did indeed love the Missa, and his overtly passionate spirituality was a perfect match for Menotti’s equally passionate yet covert one. Both men, each in his own way, shared the belief that beauty was a pathway to God.
Menotti’s fame rests primarily on his operatic works, which include The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Saint of Bleecker Street, and The Medium. He has received two Pulitzer prizes, the New York Drama Circle Critic’s Award, the Kennedy Center Honor for achievement in the Arts, and the universal admiration of audiences, if not of critics. His blending of contemporary storytelling with accessible, heartfelt music has helped keep opera a vibrant, living art form.
As Verdi did with the Requiem, Menotti turned his operatic skills to a large scale setting of the Catholic Mass, but with one telling exception: he replaced the Credo movement (the catalog of religious beliefs) with an adaptation of a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine, “O Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved You.” This, coupled with the dedication of the work “In honor of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus,” makes for an extremely compelling testament of faith.
Although Menotti feigned embarrassment at this assessment and even downplayed his own dedicatory inscription, the emotional intensity of his expression during the dress rehearsal of the Missa belied his words. I recall watching him closely as he sat in the darkened church listening intently. At the climactic moment of the Sanctus (a drum stroke on the phrase “heaven and earth are full of your glory”) he fell forward to his knees, his head bowed down. I was truly moved at the sight: a man whose genius had created a work of profound beauty, humbled by a sense of Beauty itself.
Louis Vierne: Messe Solennelle, Op. 16
Perhaps it was because he was born nearly blind that Louis Vierne’s music is so filled with color and imagination. Orphaned at an early age, Vierne completed his schooling in the provinces and eventually entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor. He became the assistant organist at St. Sulpice in 1892 and, in 1900, was appointed organist at Notre Dame. Vierne was a brilliant virtuoso and had great success as a recitalist in both Europe and the United States. He was also a master of improvisation, and as early as 1895 had begun to compose in earnest.
The Messe Solennelle, Opus 16, for four part chorus and two organs, was written in 1899 to showcase the instruments and acoustics of Notre Dame. With its sweeping melodies and harmonic grandeur, the work has justifiably been called a triumphant counterpart to Fauré’s Requiem.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Chicago, while not on the architectural scale of Notre Dame, does have two magnificent pipe organs: a fully restored E. M. Skinner, and a tracker action Visser-Rowland. This performance of the Vierne Messe shows both the organs and the chorus in all their full-throated glory.
©2007 Cedille FOUNDation/The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation
William Ferris Chorale: Menotti and Vierne
William Ferris Chorale / William Ferris, conductor
Cedille FOUNDation CDR 7001
With this disc, the Chicago-based Cedille label launches a mid-priced series. It’s an auspicious start, offering Gian-Carlo Menotti’s attractive and unjustly neglected Missa O Pulchritudo (1979), recorded live in the presence of the composer in 1981. Scored for four vocal soloists, chorus and full orchestra, and spanning nearly three-quarters of an hour, this is Menotti’s grandest sacred work. It sets the traditional Latin mass except that the Credo is replaced with a motet based on St. Augustine’s Confessions. Musically, the Missa glances back to chant and Baroque polyphony, yet in its lyricism and dramatic flair, it’s pure Menotti.
Ferris leads a fine performance that captures the work’s reverence. With a well-matched solo quartet and a choir that sings with discipline, it’s easy to overlook a few minor blemishes in the orchestral playing and some extraneous audience noise. The spacious quality of the recorded sound is quite impressive.
BBC Music Magazine
The William Ferris Chorale celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2006 with the release of this disc. This recording contains live performances recorded in 1982 and 1988. William Ferris was characterized as a lifelong champion of contemporary composers. His choir performed the compositions of many acclaimed 20th century composers, often with them in the audience as honored guests.
Gian Carlo Menotti is well known throughout the world, most notably for his children’s opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was immortalized on American television on Christmas Eve 1951 and shown for many seasons. He founded the Spoleto Music Festivals in both Italy and the United States (where the William Ferris Chorale performed), and for many years directed these annual celebrations of the arts that feature accomplished performers from throughout the world. Menotti actually requested that Ferris’ choir perform his Missa “O Pulchritudo.” The story of the artistic collaboration and friendship between Ferris and Menotti includes a telling quote from the composer after he witnessed another choir perform his music badly: “Bill, you love my “Missa” ... you’ll perform it for me, won’t you?”
It is obvious to the listener than William Ferris did love Menotti’s work. This performance displayed the passionate spirituality of this composition. For those who are familiar with Menotti’s characteristic harmonies, this recording will prove deeply satisfying and familiar. Ferris respected the composer’s musical and spiritual framework, as well as the careful balance needed between the singers and the instrumentalists. The chorus sang with power and majesty. The soloists were regal and dramatic, in keeping with Menotti’s original intent. William Ferris was a choral conductor (as well as a distinguished composer in his own right) who really understood Menotti’s music and had the courage to let it guide him and his singers to an emotionally strong and proud performance.
The Messa Solennelle by Louis Vierne is a work of almost ethereal beauty and grandeur. This composition was written in 1899 to showcase the instruments and acoustics of Notre Dame, where Vierne was appointed as organist the next year. It contains a lovely assortment of characteristically French melodies that paint a colorful picture for the listener. It is interesting that these musical images were sketched by a composer who was born nearly blind. An operation in his youth partially restored his vision and enabled him to read and compose music with the aid of a magnifying glass. Obviously, his sensitive heart could feel the colors that his eyes could not really see. The performance of his work on this disc is another example of masterful choral singing.
Since this can be characterized as a period recording in terms of the sound, it is understandable if the resulting sonority does not quite reach the level of some newer discs. The recording was obviously achieved by careful planning and wise engineering of the time. The performances are so good that it will take its rightful place among the great choral recordings. For many listeners, myself included, a live recording such as this transcends the potential acoustical compromises and becomes an unforgettable moment in time, a musical memory of this extraordinary partnership between brilliant composers and a sensitive conductor.
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