Bruckner’s Mass in E minor is available on CD in a variety
of versions. Matthew Best’s performance with the Corydon Singer
has been re-issued by Hyperion on its budget price Helios label.
Dating from the 1980s it has been a touch-stone for years. But
last year Hyperion issued a new full price disc, this time with
Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton - another benchmark against
which we must measure others.
Georg Grün’s KammerChor
Saarbrücken was founded in 1990 and has developed into one of
the major German choirs. They have an interesting discography
which covers music from all periods including contemporary.
On this new disc the choir are joined by members of the Kammerphilharmonie
Mannheim for Bruckner’s E minor mass. Then the choir alone perform
Rheinberger’s unaccompanied Requiem in E flat.
The Mass in E minor
is the second of Bruckner’s three full-scale masses. It was
originally intended for the commemoration of a new votive chapel
at the Cathedral in Linz. The service was to take place out
of doors, hence the use of only wind instruments, traditional
harmonie-musik, as accompaniment. In the mass Bruckner
welds his interest in vocal practices of earlier times with
more contemporary structural techniques. It is a far more modern
work than the previous Mass in D minor - for the first time
we can hear the Bruckner of the symphonies with his liking for
contrasting blocks of massed sound. In many ways the mass is
quite austere, with lightly accompanied quiet contrapuntal voices
punctuated by louder bodies of sound.
An ideal performance
must combine a feeling for the sacred with a more secular revelling
in the sheer gorgeousness of Bruckner’s sounds. Though intended
as a strictly liturgical work, this is a piece which is suspended
part-way between church and concert hall.
The KammerChor Saarbrücken
make a bright, focused sound. It sounds as if they are quite
a young group and their virtues are focus, clarity and a fine
sense of line. As recorded here, their sound quality would work
well in the music of earlier periods which inspired Bruckner.
The quiet opening of the Kyrie is ravishing. Under Grün’s
capable direction they give the music a quiet intensity which
makes it clear that this is a reading in which the sacred is
to the fore.
does get loud and Grün shows himself adept at balancing the
structure of Bruckner’s piece. But my overall impression was
one of quietness and a revealing of the soul of the piece; ethereal
transparency seems to be Grün’s goal. When you compare the performance
with Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers, you find that the
Corydons are no less spiritual, but the choir has a bit more
aural presence - they are clear and pure but warmer of tone
than Grün’s forces. This pays dividends when the music gets
What the KammerChor
Saarbrücken do not quite seem to do is to revel in Bruckner’s
luxurious textures. Even when things get loud and high, the
choral sound remains relatively austere and rather cool.
It is pointless
recording this mass unless the sopranos can sing the high vocal
lines in a confident manner. This the KammerChor Saarbrücken
do, but the sound quality never really opens up. Too often in
reviews I find myself bemoaning choirs whose tone quality neglects
a sense of line and focus. I have even suggested that certain
choirs give up singing renaissance music and try Bruckner! Here
I find that I am made to stand on my head and wish that, in
the major moments, the choir would open up more and make a more
Romantic sound. It is significant that for most of the performance
the choir sounds smaller than its fifty-strong complement. That
said, this is a beautifully performed and shaped account of
They are nicely
accompanied by the winds of the Kammerphilharmonie Mannheim.
Like the choir they give a slight backwards glance to Bruckner’s
accompaniment, giving it the attractive feel of the Harmonie-Musik
of previous generations. The balance between choir and instruments
is perhaps a little more natural on this disc than on the Corydon
Singers disc, where the instrumental ensemble seems to dominate
The Bruckner mass
is accompanied by a strong performance of his motet Libera
The disc is completed
by Rheinberger’s Requiem in E flat, for unaccompanied
chorus. This should not be confused with his earlier Requiem
in B flat minor. The E flat Requiem was probably written on
the occasion of the death of his sister. The title page bears
the remark ‘easy to perform’ and this is most definitely practical
music. The work is mainly homophonic and syllabic, with much
use of chorale-style material. Each of the movements is a short
motet-like piece. In his earlier sacred music, Rheinberger was
influenced by the Cecilian movement and their tenets seem, to
be echoed in this setting. It is a charming piece, well performed
by Georg Grün and his choir, but it is not a work that I will
come back to very often.
There is much to commend
on this disc, but Georg Grün and his choir are up against strong
competition especially as the Corydons’ disc is now available
at budget price. Also, not everyone will like the clean, clear
sound quality of Grün’s choir, but it will appeal to some.