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Hyperion Records

CDA67017 - Martin: Mass; Pizzetti: Messa di Requiem
Votive Offering (1900) by Wilhelm List (1864-1918)

Recording details: July 1997
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: January 1998
Total duration: 70 minutes 0 seconds


'Magnificent' (Gramophone)

'A recording of arresting immediacy and musical richness' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Gloriously sung. This certainly deserves to become a classic recording' (BBC Record Review)

'A work of surpassing beauty which will be a revelation to those who have not encountered it before, particularly in this fervent and inspired performance.' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Quite remarkable' (International Record Review)

'For connoisseurs of choral music this is an essential buy. Outstanding performances of two rarely heard 20th-century masterpieces' (Classic CD)

'I have been glued to my seat discovering this quite wonderful work [Pizzetti]. The performance needs no further reecommendation; it is utterly compelling' (Organists' Review)

'Martin's Mass is a life-enhancing creation of enormous invention and fervour. The Requiem by Pizzetti is simply ravishing. The recordings are superb' (Hi-Fi News)

'Both works are simply among the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. A most beguiling combination of melody and harmony, performed here with technical near-perfection and a magnificent range of emotional colour' (Hi Fi Choice)

'Westminster Cathedral Choir here produces one of its most inspired offerings yet. This is one of the purest and finest choral recordings I have ever heard' (Church Times)

Martin: Mass; Pizzetti: Messa di Requiem

'One of the greatest a cappella works written this century'; so writes Gramophone's Marc Rochester in the sleeve note to this recording, and this is no exaggeration. Written in 1922, with a devastatingly effective Agnus Dei being added in 1926, Frank Martin's Mass for double choir is a truly wonderful work, combining intensely personal moments of religious contemplation with outbursts of overwhelming glory.

Pizzetti's Messa di Requiem, also composed in 1922, is a work firmly steeped in the Gregorian tradition, Pizzetti weaving an intriguing twentieth-century web over the familiar tunes.

Also included on this recording are Martin's Passacaille, the composer's only work for solo organ, and Pizzetti's De profundis, dedicated by way of apology to a colleague on whom Pizzetti had previously vented his infamous foul temper.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although well into his fifties before his music caught the attention of an audience much beyond his native Switzerland, Frank Martin (1890–1974) was neither a reluctant composer nor a particularly late developer. He had started to compose at the age of eight and by his late teens was sufficiently determined on a musical career to abandon the course of study in mathematics and physics his parents had persuaded him to pursue and take up composition studies with Joseph Lauber. He was twenty when the first professional performance of his music (the Poèmes païens for baritone and orchestra) took place during the Swiss Composers’ Festival of 1911, and as a result of this performance his music found an enthusiastic champion in the influential conductor Ernest Ansermet. Certainly, though, Martin seemed singularly unwilling to submit his compositional attempts to public scrutiny until 1941, the year he completed the oratorio Le vin herbé. Thereafter the floodgates opened and music flowed prolifically from his pen, often accompanied by long and detailed essays explaining the psychological and musical thought processes behind each composition.

Frank Martin was a fastidious composer. Unlike his equally fastidious French contemporaries Dukas and Duruflé, however, he did not destroy or endlessly revise his compositions but chose to withhold them until he was satisfied that he had, at last, developed a distinctive, individual style and one, moreover, which he was able to justify in his writings. Through painstaking study and conscious assimilation of the most important developments in music over the previous four centuries Martin evolved a musical language which is a wonderful amalgam of the Italian Renaissance, Bach, the German Romantics, the French Impressionists and Schoenberg’s twelve-note system. Having devised his unique idiom Martin’s voice remained more or less unchanged, the stylistic differences between Le vin herbé and his last work completed only weeks before his death in November 1974 – Et la vie l’emporta for vocal ensemble and a characteristically unusual combination of instruments (flutes, oboe, oboe d’amore, harpsichord, harp, organ and strings) – being barely perceptible.

That is not to say, though, that anything written before 1941 is necessarily immature or stylistically undistinguished. Far from it. The work to which he ascribed the number Opus 1, the Violin Sonata of 1913, may show a strong influence of César Franck and, to a lesser extent, Ravel, but it is finely crafted, exhibiting enough individuality to distinguish it from the works of his contemporaries. But of all the works written before 1941 none is so musically assured or distinctive as the Mass for double choir. Written in 1922 it was to remain Martin’s only unaccompanied choral work. In the intimacy of its musical language and the deep emotion inherent in every bar it stands today as one of Martin’s finest creations and one of the greatest a cappella works written this century. It is a sincerely felt and intensely personal work which Martin secreted in a drawer for forty years, releasing it only after much persuasion from Franz Brunnert, director of the Bugenhagen Kantorei of Hamburg, who premiered the Mass in 1963, the year in which it was also first published.

Why keep such a masterpiece hidden? The answer to this question lies in the strong Christian faith to which Martin adhered throughout his life. He was born into a fervently Christian family – his father was a Calvinist minister – and religious themes form the basis of much of his music, both choral and instrumental. Such an all-pervasive faith convinced him that the public airing of an aesthetic work expressing the very essence of Christianity was tantamount to blasphemy. As he wrote at the time of the Mass’s premiere: ‘I did not want it to be performed … I considered it … as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.’

There was a further reason for Martin’s reluctance to have the Mass performed. When he was ten he had heard a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, an occasion which had so profoundly affected him that he decided there and then to devote his life to music. But if Bach was the catalyst to set Martin on the composing road, Bach was also the barrier which held Martin back from submitting his music to the public gaze. Beside the genius of Bach, Martin was convinced his own efforts would seem merely presumptuous – a belief he never fully shook off.

Coming from a Calvinist background Martin was not imbued with the Catholic tradition of the Mass with its associated plainchant melodies. There is no plainchant in Martin’s Mass, although its influence is obvious in the sinuous alto melody at the start of the Kyrie. Free-flowing, interweaving melodies, often sung antiphonally (as in the opening bars), create a vivid sense of streams of supplication in this movement while the calm, gentle opening to the Gloria, with the voices piling up in a sensation of awestruck wonder, leads into a movement in which frequent changes of time signature and syncopated cross-rhythms testify to the fascination with rhythm which led Martin to study and later teach rhythmic theory at the Jacques-Dalcroze Institute. Martin declared that the music for the words ‘et incarnatus est’ in the Credo was ‘very dear’ to him. The Credo, central to the Christian faith, displays Martin’s wonderful conciseness of word-setting; a conciseness which results in all five movements of the Mass being of roughly equal musical length. There is some subtle word-painting, with a gloriously luminous climax on ‘lumen de lumine’, and some truly ecstatic canonic writing for ‘Et resurrexit’ where the essentially intimate nature of the Mass is highlighted by this glorious moment being marked both dolce and piano. Above a gentle swaying cushion of harmony from the tenors and basses the sopranos intone with ever-increasing urgency the word ‘Sanctus’. After a sensuous, almost erotic, setting of the ‘Benedictus’ this movement concludes with one of the work’s few passages to be marked fortissimo.

And that is where Martin concluded his 1922 Mass. However, in 1926 he took the work out and added a deeply moving Agnus Dei in which the two choirs are used essentially as separate entities, the second maintaining a steady, regular movement while the first, largely in unison, moves with the kind of quasi-plainchant free-rhythmic flow heard in the Kyrie. Only with the final invocation of peace do both choirs join as one in a rich and moving conclusion to a work of unalloyed beauty.

So terrified was Martin of being considered in the same critical light as his great musical idol, Bach, that he deliberately avoided writing in the same genres. It is no surprise, therefore, that he composed only one work for solo organ – an instrument indelibly associated with Bach – although in his old age he began to appreciate its flexibility as an ensemble instrument, going so far as to give it a substantial solo part in his 1972 Requiem. It is more of a surprise, however, that this one work was modelled on Bach’s C minor Passacaglia, generally considered one of his greatest organ works although, ironically, one conceived for pedal clavier rather than organ. Martin wrote his Passacaille for Kurt Wolfgang Senn who gave the first performance in Berne Cathedral on 26 September 1944. Not satisfied at that stage with the organ’s ability to create the range of colours he wanted for his music, Martin arranged the work first for strings (in 1952) and ten years later for full orchestra. He subsequently instructed organists playing the original version (heard on this disc) to use ‘registration as close as possible to my arrangement for full orchestra’. While the most powerful influence over Martin’s music was undoubtedly Bach, Martin’s mature style did not evolve until he had studied closely Schoenberg’s twelve-note system of composition. He first came across this in 1932 and while he totally rejected Schoenberg’s serial methods, he used the chromatic scale as the basis of many of his most important melodies.

While Frank Martin spent decades evolving a personal style which deliberately encompassed the innovative ideas of his contemporaries, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968) reacted very early in his composing career against the melodic and emotional excesses of Puccini, Mascagni and other Italian opera composers of the time. Pizzetti preferred to take as his principal stylistic models Gregorian chant and the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian masters of polyphony to whose music he was introduced in his teens by the musicologist Giovanni Tebaldini. He also suggested that his habit of frequently changing the number of vocal parts within a single piece originated from the tradition of improvised polyphonic folk-singing of his native north Italian region of Emilia Romagna. At the age at which Martin’s creative powers were heading towards their peak, Pizzetti’s were already on the decline and in the latter years of his life, with the notable exception of his unaccompanied choral music, he showed little of his earlier creative spark while at the same time relishing his reactionary stance against modernism in music through his copious writings. (Like Martin, he too was almost as prolific a writer of words as he was of music and wrote the librettos of most of his fourteen published operas. He was also an outspoken music critic propounding opinions on the music of his contemporaries which, it has to be said, fluctuated with disturbing frequency.)

Pizzetti came from a musical family. His father, a piano teacher, encouraged him to study music but was initially disappointed when, at school, the young Ildebrando showed a fervent interest in drama but virtually none at all in music. However, at the age of fifteen he entered the Parma Conservatoire and obtained his diploma in composition in 1901. His early love of drama remained a powerful force and the driving ambition right through his days at the Conservatoire was to write an opera. There were several early attempts dating as far back as 1899 and his first success in opera, Fedra, composed between 1909 to 1912 and eventually staged at La Scala, Milan, on 20 March 1915, was only the fifth of his compositions to be published. Opera remained a lifelong passion; one of his very last works, published in 1965, was the opera Clitennestra. What distinguishes Pizzetti’s operas, however, is not the solo vocal characterizations, dramatic flair or orchestral colour (so far as mastery of the orchestra was concerned Pizzetti did not begin to equal his better-known compatriot and contemporary, Ottorino Respighi) but his inspired handling of the chorus.

There is no disputing the fact that Pizzetti had a unique flair for choral writing. His earliest real success as a composer was the incidental music for D’Annunzio’s play La nave which contains choral writing of sublime beauty, while the choral prelude to the last act of Fedra has remained in the choral repertoire long after the opera itself has fallen into relative neglect. Towards the end of his life, when in other fields his music showed a marked decline, he was still able to produce inspired music for unaccompanied choir.

Probably none of Pizzetti’s choral music reaches the heights of supreme beauty or displays such utter confidence in the genre as the Messa di Requiem. There are many parallels between this and Martin’s Mass. For a start both are a cappella works, both were composed in 1922, and both represent their respective composers’ only venture into liturgical music. If Martin was a deeply committed Christian, Pizzetti’s approach to the Christian faith seems rather more equivocal, yet there is every bit as much spiritual intensity in this work as in Martin’s devotional Mass.

Coming from a Catholic background, Pizzetti was entirely familiar with the plainchant of the Mass. However, the work’s opening movement, Requiem, starts with the kind of free-flowing quasi-plainchant line (here sung by the basses) which Martin uses at the start of his Mass. With the words ‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’ the music suddenly broadens out into a radiant five-part texture (there are two bass parts) strongly reminiscent of Renaissance madrigals. Signifying the move into the formal liturgy of the Mass, Pizzetti sets the words ‘Kyrie eleison’ as a fugue, the harmony becoming correspondingly more stark. By far and away the longest movement is the Dies irae which is founded on the traditional plainchant associated with these words. This plainchant is heard at the outset sung by basses and altos as a kind of inexorable funeral march to the accompaniment of a subdued wailing counter-melody sung by tenors and sopranos. This sparse two-part writing continues for fifty bars, a quarter of the movement’s length, before, with the words ‘Quid sum miser’, the texture thickens out into eight-part polyphony, reaching a passionate climax with the cry ‘Salva me’. A brief return of the two-part writing precedes a deeply moving conclusion in which the words ‘Pie Iesu’ suddenly shine through in gloriously radiant major harmony. For the Sanctus the texture thickens still further with the choir divided into three four-part groups, vividly calling to mind the multiple choirs used in sixteenth-century Venetian church music. The glorious ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ subsides into a gentle setting of the ‘Benedictus’ which again builds up into a dazzling final ‘Hosanna’, a truly breathtaking climax. The gentle Agnus Dei, in simple four-part harmony, provides a tranquil prayer-like interlude before the final Libera me marked to be sung ‘with profound fervour’. Pizzetti here returns to the five-part texture of the first movement and, while for the most part the movement is restless and rhythmically unsettled, there is a moment of sheer magic with the setting of words fundamental to the whole work: ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis’.

Pizzetti could be an immensely charming man but there was a horribly cantankerous side to his personality. Friendships he had held firm for decades would abruptly end as the result of one vehement outburst or a single snide remark. It was as a result of one such shattered friendship (with the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero) that Pizzetti composed one of his finest short choral works – a piece which inspired his most successful composition pupil, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, to describe Pizzetti as ‘without doubt the greatest vocal polyphonist Italy has had since the glorious fifteen-hundreds’. Malipiero had announced bitterly to the world the rift between Pizzetti and himself by publishing a pamphlet describing their argument and ending with the words: ‘Here endeth a friendship that started well but finished badly … de profundis clamavi.’ When, in 1937, that friendship was patched up both composers wrote a setting of Psalm 130, which begins with those Latin words, and dedicated their respective settings to each other. Pizzetti’s De profundis, scored for seven-part unaccompanied choir begins, appropriately, with the lowest voices descending through simple, overlapping arpeggios. The upper voices emerge gradually, building up to a climax on ‘quis sustinebit?’ before subsiding to close this short, but profoundly beautiful work on a single note marked to be sung ppp (as softly as possible).

Marc Rochester © 1998

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