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
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
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.