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(1797 - 1828)

Mass No. 1 in F Major, D. 105 (1)
Salve Regina in A Major, D. 676 (2)
Magnificat in C major, D 485 (3)
Mass No. 2 in G Major, D. 167 (5)
Mass No. 3 in B flat Major, D. 324 (6)
Mass No. 4 in C Major, D. 1452(7)
Mass No. 5 in A Flat Major, D. 1678 (8)
Mass No. 6 in E Flat Major, D. 950 (9)
Offertorium, D. 963 (10)
Tantum Ergo, D. 962 (11)
Deutsche Messe, D. 872 (12)
Zdena Kloubova (soprano) (1,2,3)
Ludmila Vernerova (soprano) (5, 6)
Marta Filova (soprano) (7)
Donna Brown (soprano) (8)
Sibylla Rubens (soprano) (9, 11)
Marta Benackova (mezzo-soprano) (1,3,7)
Lenka Smidova (mezzo-soprano) (6)
Monica Groop (alto) (8)
Irene Friedli (alto) (9, 11)
Walter Coppola (tenor) (1,3,7)
Richard Sporka (tenor) (5)
Rodrigo Orrego (tenor) (6)
James Taylor (tenor) (8)
Scot Weir (tenor) (9,10)
Christoph Genz (tenor) (11)
Matthias Goerne (tenor II, bass) (10)
Thomas Mehnert (bass) (11)
Jurij Kruglov (baritone) (1,3)
Roman Janal (bass) (5)
Jiri Sulzenko (bass) (6)
Miroslav Podskalsky (bass) (7)
Michael Volle (bass) (8)
Virtuosi di Praga Orchestra (1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
Oregon Bach Festival Choir (8)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart (9, 10, 11)
Tölzer Knabenchor (12)
Prague Chamber Choir (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra (8)
Bach Collegium Stuttgart (9, 10, 11)
Bläser Orchester (12)
Andreas Weiser (conductor) (1,2,3)
Romano Gandolfi (conductor) (5)
Jack Marin Händler (conductor) (6)
Ulrich Backofen (conductor) (7)
Helmuth Rilling (conductor) (8, 9, 10, 11)
Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden (conductor) (12)
Recorded 1996 Prague (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
6-9 July 1996, Silva Concert Hall, Eugene, Oregon, USA (8)
5-7 May 1996, Stadthalle Sindelfingern Germany (9, 10, 11)
1975 (12)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92183-1/6 [6 CDs: 56.50+74.23+48.59+74.10+40.55]

Brilliant Classics

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Schubert composed his first mass at the age of 17, writing it within the space of 37 days. It was performed the year it was written, at Schubert’s own parish church. His final mass was written a few months before his death so that the masses span an important period of his creative life.

The first four Masses are played by Prague-based forces, Virtuosi di Praga and Prague Chamber Choir. The Virtuosi di Praga plays with style, shaping the phrases well. Though this is very much a traditional performance, they generally keep the orchestral textures admirably clear. The Prague Chamber Choir sing with clarity and a feeling for Schubertian style. In the first Mass, neither choir nor orchestra seems over-large for the work and they do not overburden the piece with noise and volume. The woodwind and brass have a slight tang, but you would not necessarily know that you were listening to a Czech ensemble and though the choir sing with Germanic pronunciation of Latin, they too have rather an international vocal style, fine though it is. This does mean that they keep vibrato to a minimum which is a relief. The soloists, though, are an admirably distinctive group. Soprano Zdena Kloubova displays a silvery voice, shot through with steel, in her long solo in the Kyrie. Both Kloubova and Tenor Walter Coppola have bright voices which turn slightly steely in the higher register but both have the suppleness and flexibility needed for performing Schubert’s lovely vocal lines. Bass Jurij Kruglov has a remarkable, dark, grainy voice which I loved but might not be to everyone’s taste. In all, the soloists give us a welcome hint of a distinctive Czech sound to the piece, whilst remaining true to Schubert stylistically.

The choral part is not overly complex and includes quite a bit of homophony. The beauty of the pieces comes from the melodic interest of the solos and interaction between choral, solo and orchestral sections. In the Credo, Schubert sets the words almost exclusively homophonically, the chorus being interrupted by just two solos, for bass and for tenor. Despite missing out crucial words from the text of the Credo this setting, with its highly audible words, implies Schubert anticipated a liturgical use for the movement.

As companions to Mass No. 1 on the first disc, the Prague forces give us a Salve Regina for soprano and orchestra and a Magnificat for chorus and soloists. In the Salve Regina Kloubova again shows her suppleness and style in this fine work. The chorus part for the Magnificat is homophonic and is interspersed with solo sections where Schubert uses his four soloists like a semi-chorus.

The second disc has three masses on it, Mass No. 2, Mass No. 3 and Mass No. 4. Mass No. 2 uses just strings and organ for the accompaniment. Schubert creates a rather more intimate atmosphere, but the work is surprisingly varied and includes the quite stunning quiet ending to the Credo. Soprano, Ludmila Vernerova shines in her solo in the Kyrie giving us beautifully spun lines. She is well supported by chorus and orchestra who shape the phrases finely. A massive Sanctus is followed by a fugal Hosanna, which is a welcome contrast in the choral writing. The Benedictus give Vernerova another chance to shine, initially a soprano solo developing into a trio for soprano, tenor Richard Sporka and bass Roman Janal.

Mass No. 3 starts with a massive choral statement well supported by the orchestra, in this mass the woodwind and brass return. The conductor, Jack Martin Händler seems to have been tempted by these resources and sections of the mass sound over-vigorous, perhaps even a little wearying. Soprano Vernerova does not spin Schubert’s lines quite as well here. Tenor Rodrigo Orrego has an attractive, open, English timbre but sounds a little stretched by the tessitura at times. This choral writing is a little more complex than in the other two masses on this disc. The excellent chorus relish the limited opportunities that Schubert gives them.

Mass No. 4 is, despite its short length, quite a robust, big-boned work, but again conductor Ulrich Backhofen overdoes it occasionally as he encourages the chorus to produce a too vigorous performance. There are hardly any real solo opportunities in this mass; generally the soloists are used in ensemble as a semi-chorus. The soprano, Marta Filova, gets the only real solo moment in the Hosanna and Benedictus, but she has difficulty with the tessitura and does not shape the phrases well. The Agnus Dei is a remarkably jolly movement and towards the end the clarinet contributes a perky solo.

These four masses were obviously recorded at different times, as they use a varying case of soloists and conductors. It is noteworthy that the various conductors have manage to achieve a high degree of consistency in these generally fine performances. The large roster of soloists and Schubert’s use of them in ensemble, mean that some of the individuals rarely get much of a chance to shine. But nevertheless we are treated to some lovely singing, particularly from the sopranos.

For the remaining two masses, the forces change and the works are performed by the rather larger Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra and the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, both groups under Helmuth Rilling. Mass No. 5 and Mass No. 6 are rather larger scale works and are eminently suited to these bigger forces. Nevertheless I would have been rather interested to hear what the Prague group made of these works.

Mass No. 5 is a far more substantial work that its predecessors. Schubert took three years to write it and subjected it to various revisions. It is substantial not just in size, but in the way Schubert handles the chorus and the orchestra. Not only do the Chorus get a substantial fugue for the ‘Cum Spirito Sancto’ in the Gloria, but the ‘Crucifixus’ in the Credo is also a substantial choral moment. Rilling has a fine group of soloists, Donna Brown, Monica Groop, James Taylor and Michael Volle. They all have rather more operatic voices than those on the Prague-based discs. Schubert uses them almost exclusively like a semi-chorus and they treat these solo moments like dramatic ensembles. Donna Brown has a fine, expressive voice but she sings the music in a manner rather than spinning a fine line. But this is the choruses’ mass and they respond brilliantly, well supported by Rilling and his ensemble. As added interest, they also include a couple of variant movements.

Mass No. 6 dates from Schubert’s final year, composed in June and July 1828 just a few months before his death in November 1828. The work is a sombre one with the chorus taking a substantial role. Helmuth Rilling’s Stuttgart-based choir is famous for its Bach performances and their wonderful control and flexibility make them eminently suitable for these two masses. The choir, though a large group, make a fine sound and they shade their sound down to a well shaped pianissimo. The soloists are not much used and Schubert often combines them with the chorus to create dramatic ensembles. The substantial choral ‘Cum Spirito Sancto’ which concludes the Gloria is followed by a wonderfully hushed opening to the Credo. For the ‘Et incarnatus est’ the tenor solo, finely sung by Scot Weir, develops into an ensemble for the soloists and choir which develops a real dramatic feel for the meaning of the words. The Credo concludes with another big fugue for the ‘Et vitam venturi’. It is in these big fugal moments that the power and control of the Gächinger Kantorei really comes to the fore. The harmonically unexpected Sanctus leads into a lyrical Benedictus, the soloists come to eminence here. The disc finishes with two more of his late sacred works, the lovely Offertorium where Scot Weir displays a fine lyric tenor and the Tantum Ergo.

The final disc in the set is the Deutsche Messe. This is a mature work, dating from 1826. It was written for the Polytechnic School of Vienna and is a technically simple work, written for amateurs with wind accompaniment. The piece sets a German text by J.P. Neumann, the movements corresponding to the movements of the Latin mass. The settings are hymn-like with some melodic charm. Here they are sung by the Tölz Boys Choir in a recording dating from 1975. The choir sing very attractively, but this disc is really for completists only.

There are undoubtedly greater performances of the Schubert masses, but those on this set are never less than convincing and sometimes a good deal more so. They form an ideal base from which to explore Schubert’s sacred music; at super-budget price you can’t go wrong.

Robert Hugill


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