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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Anton BRUCKNER (1824 - 1896): Masses
Mass No.1 in D minor

Isabelle Müller-Kant (soprano)
Eibe Möhlmann (mezzo-soprano)
Daniel Sans (tenor)
Christof Fischesses (bass)
Chamber Choir of Europe
Württemburgische Philharmonic Reutlingen/Nicol Matt
Recorded 20-25 January 2003, Württemberg, Germany
Te Deum
Psalm 150
Mass No. 2 in E minor

Pamela Coburn (soprano)
Ingeborg Danz (alto)
Christian Elsner (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
Recorded 7th-9th September 1996, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart
Mass No. 3 in F minor

Verena Schweizer (soprano)
Elisabeth Glauser (alto)
Uwe Heilmann (tenor)
Matthias Goerne (baritone/bass)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
Recorded December 1992, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Stuttgart.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92002 [3CDs: 50.38, 76.44, 62.03]

Brilliant Classics

 

There are surprisingly few recordings of Bruckner's three mature masses in the catalogue. The recordings on Hyperion by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best were made in the mid-1980s and remain a touchstone. The set under consideration here contains recordings with two different provenances. Helmuth Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart recorded the 2nd and 3rd masses (along with the Te Deum) in the 1990s. They do not appear to have recorded the 1st mass and this lacuna has been remedied with a new recording by the Chamber Choir of Europe (previously the Nordic Chamber Choir) under Nicol Matt.

Bruckner's three mature masses were written in the 1860s after his prolonged period of study with Simon Sechter. Now in his forties, he plunged back into composition developing his style based on the Austrian classical tradition. From this period date the symphonies 0 and 1 as well as these masses. Bruckner had not yet fully developed the processes that would allow him to explore the vast, slow time-scales of his later works. But, though the masses owe much in their ground-plans to the masses of Mozart, Schubert and Haydn, they also employ a principle of cyclical re-use of material that is rather symphonic in nature. It could be argued that these masses as well as the early symphonies are the crucible in which Bruckner would forge his later style. And, perhaps, this goes some way to explaining the lack of recordings in the catalogue. For a successful conductor of these works must not only be sympathetic to the pre-existing masses of the classical period but must have a grasp of Brucknerian structure. As it is, few of our great Bruckner conductors have recorded the masses which is a great shame.

The D minor mass was first performed, under the composer's direction, in Linz Cathedral in 1864, when the composer was 40. Scored for chorus, orchestra, organ and four soloists, the orchestra has an important role to play as the mass has a very symphonic sweep. The mass opens with a highly chromatic passage, but firmly anchored over a D minor pedal point the Kyrie develops along more diatonic lines. The large scale Gloria includes a theme that re-appears in the 3rd Symphony and concludes with a vast fugal Amen. After the affirmatory Credo, the Sanctus and Benedictus are quite short.

The mass is sung here by the Chamber Choir of Europe. They make a lovely, clean, focused sound and in the quieter passages bring a shape and reflectiveness which fits the music, but they are only about 40 strong. They are supported by the Würrtemburgisches Philharmonie Reutlingen but the orchestra lacks the depth and amplitude needed by Bruckner. We miss the symphonic sweep of the mass and I could not help feeling that the Bruckner Mass had been recorded by forces more suitable to a Schubert mass. The soloists are more than adequate, though soprano Isabelle Müller-Kant has rather more vibrato than I would like. Bass, Christof Fischesser has a remarkable dark Slavic bass.

The second mass, in E minor, has an altogether different set of problems. Written in 1866 for the Cecilian Order, Bruckner was asked for an unaccompanied mass. He did not feel able to write a completely unaccompanied one, but simply used wind instruments to accompany the choir. The mass is performed here in Bruckner's revision of 1882. Although a compulsive reviser his revisions of the masses caused few of the textual problems that occur in the symphonies. The Kyrie uses extensive unaccompanied passages punctuated by chords on horns and trombones. Long suspensions and clear harmony create a sense of space. The Gloria and Credo are closer to his mature orchestral style, classical allegros with the text dictating the contrasts of tempo and style. The Sanctus includes a quote from Palestrina's Missa Brevis of 1570. It is a movement of great power which belies its short duration. The Agnus Dei, descending to a hushed Dona Nobis Pacem at the end of each verse contains some of the most beautiful choral music that Bruckner wrote.

The choral part is no less big-boned and taxing than works accompanied by orchestra and to this a choir must add the ability to sing with clarity and stamina and remain perfectly in tune over the long unaccompanied passages. The Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, one of the great European choirs, manage the technical challenges of the work brilliantly. The sopranos have a tendency to hardness of tone in the long notes, but there is very little to complain of. They make a big sound and are ably partnered by the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart.

For the F minor mass, they are joined by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. This is an orchestra well able to cope with the symphonic nature of this grand-scale mass. The longest of the three masses, it was written in 1868 after Bruckner's recovery from depression and can be viewed as a thanks offering. Again it is scored for soloists, chorus, organ and full orchestra. The Kyrie begins quietly with a motto theme which will recur throughout the piece. The two long central movements, the Gloria and Credo, both use C major to create an atmosphere of praise and affirmation, though both movements do rather wander chromatically and both end with large-scale fugues. Again the Sanctus is short and the Benedictus uses material from the 2nd Symphony. The Agnus Dei draws material from elsewhere in the mass into a symphonic conclusion.

Again the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart sing brilliantly, but you do notice a drawback that is common to all three of these performances. Neither conductor could be described as a great Brucknerian. Whilst, from moment to moment, these performances are fine the conductors do not seem to have a strong enough grasp of Brucknerian structure so the overall shape of the works suffers. This means that, for instance, in the long Kyrie of the F minor mass the performance seems rambling and the structure not completely coherent. Whereas if you listen to Eugen Jochum conducting Bavarian forces on DG, the movement is transformed into a great Brucknerian symphonic movement. I would not want to over-emphasise this point, but it should certainly be considered when you think about buying a set of Bruckner Masses.

The set is completed by a performance of the Te Deum, dating from 1882. It was written between the 7th and 8th symphonies and is of considerable importance in Bruckner's oeuvre. The choral writing is based on chordal structures and contains some of Bruckner's most thrilling writing. Though only 20 minutes long, it is a strenuous and taxing sing for both chorus and soloists. The chorus manage brilliantly, the sopranos holding Bruckner's long, high sustained notes in fine manner. Tenor Uwe Heilmann, though inclined to steeliness, copes well with the difficult tenor part.

Though the Gächinger Kantorei are a substantial choir, Rilling rather lets his enthusiasm get the better of him and they can be overwhelmed at the climaxes. This is undoubtedly thrilling, but it is a shame that a better balance could not have been achieved. This is probably not a library recording, a bigger choir and a greater orchestra would be preferable. But the Stuttgart forces give a fine performance and it, and the short Psalm 150 (which inhabits a similar sound world) make fine fillers to this disc.

Usually I would recommend these super-budget recordings as an ideal place to start exploring Bruckner's masses. But here, I feel that these performances are in danger of making the masses seem less than they are, especially for a new user. If you possibly can afford it, then get the Corydon Singers’ performances on Hyperion. Their boxed set is available at mid-price and includes everything here plus three shorter works.. And do try to listen to the Eugen Jochum recordings to see what a great symphonic Brucknerian can do with this music.

Robert Hugill

 



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