Geoffrey Webber

Charles Gounod: Sacred Choral Works

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To most people, Charles Gounod is just the composer of the wedding classic Ave Maria, based on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Prelude No. 1. While that work didn't start out as an intentionally religious piece, Gounod did write hundreds of vocal and choral sacred works, much of them for use by amateur church choirs. Not all of his sacred music is as broadly drawn as his Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile -- the grand and glorious "Sanctus" of which is a favorite show piece for opera singers -- as this sampling from the Choir of Gonville & Caius College proves. Many of these motets and sacred songs will seem restrained to those who know Gounod's operas or anything about his life, although there are some moments that lean toward the theatrical. These are found more in the sacred songs, the pieces not necessarily meant for liturgical use, such as Prière du Soire and Le Vendredi-Saint. The latter tells the Passion story in a verse-refrain structure, alternating the more intense verses with somber, reverent refrains that celebrate the triumph in the story. Gounod uses brief half-step modulations in this piece and in the expansive Miserere, adding more interest to his always naturally appealing melodies. The Miserere, composed as a stand-alone work, uses the same full complement of soloists, chorus, and organ that a complete Mass setting would call for. It also uses elements of canon and ends with a triumphant fugue, making it the most complex work on the disc. The other works, those meant for use in a Mass and with Latin texts, are more traditionally hymn-sounding: reverent, slow, and reassuring. And yet there is still enough variety in the settings -- even among four settings of O Salutaris Hostia -- for this sampling of Gounod's work to keep a listener from getting bored. The Regina caeli almost has the joie de vivre of a student song. The one misstep in the program is the overly familiar Ave Maria. It is not only unnecessary to the collection, but the arrangement for soprano, chorus, violin, and organ is overly scored and unbalanced. The choir, soprano Joanna Burton, and director Geoffrey Webber, perform with excellent intonation and ensemble work, and with a balance of devotion and spirit that is spot on. The sound is also precisely what is expected for this type of music, with the roomy resonation of a large church, but not too cold or distant. For those who want to go beyond the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, this is a great starting point.

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