- Missa O Pulchritudo, for soloists, chorus & orchestra
- Messe Solennelle in C sharp, Op 16
The dilemma of faith and religion in conflict with skepticism is the most enduring theme in Menotti's work, starting with "The Island God" in 1942 and continuing with "The Medium," "The Saint of Bleeker Street," "The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi," and "Martin's Lie." It wasn't until 1979, however, beginning with "Missa O Pulchritudo," that he turned his attention to explicitly religious music, some if it for liturgical use and some for concert performance, and (except for one early song) using texts that he hadn't written himself. Menotti's new outpouring of religious works was not necessarily an indication that the faith dilemma had resolved itself. Rather than setting the full text of the Mass, he omitted the Credo, the central and longest section, which contains an affirmation of the historical tenets of the Christian faith, and substituted a paean to beauty by St. Augustine, "O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You...." Yet the Mass bears the dedication, "In honor of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus," perhaps indicating that the conflict that fueled some of the composer's most effective music continues to engage his creativity. The Mass concludes with an emotionally ambiguous and decidedly unpeaceful "dona nobis pacem." The Mass is one of Menotti's most attractive and musically satisfying pieces since the late '50s, when the high level of creativity and energy that characterized his work of the two previous decades seemed to flag, and his music become more perfunctory than inspired. The choral writing is consistently lyrical and for the most part fairly conventional, recalling choruses from "The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi," but more highly contrapuntal, since the intelligibility of the texts isn't a primary concern here. The orchestral interjections, however, leap out with an energy and transparency that give the work emotional complexity and depth. The Mass is at its best when Menotti makes no attempt (as he seems to for much of the "O Pulchritudo" movement) to rein in the gestural and harmonic quirkiness that makes his music spring to life. The climax of the Sanctus is a choral tour de force -- an ecstatic canonic outpouring of Hosannas. The composer's gift for memorable melody is most apparent in the final two movements. The Benedictus opens with a limpid duet for soprano and alto that is one of his most felicitous inventions. The Agnus Dei begins serenely with the four soloists' fugal entries over a languidly rolling accompaniment, and builds to a tumultuous climax on an unresolved dissonance, suggesting that the desired peace has yet to be granted. William Ferris leads the Chicago-based William Ferris Chorale and the Composer Festival Orchestra in a spirited and committed performance. The recording, which dates from 1982, is taken from a live performance, and there is more than the usual level of audience noise. As a document of one of Menotti's most significant late works, the recording is a valuable addition to his discography.