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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Mass in A Flat major, D677 "Missa Solemnis" [50’05"]
Mass in E Flat major, D950 "Missa Solemnis"* [52’31"]
Luba Organosova (soprano); Birgit Remmert (contralto); Deon van der Walt (tenor); *Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone); Anton Scharinger (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live in the Stefaniensaal, Graz *24 June 1995 and 25 June 1995
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 2564 61390-2 [50’05" + 52’31"]

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking conductors currently before the public. In 1992 he recorded a cycle of the Schubert symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which I found very stimulating, albeit his is not for me the only way with Schubert. The same verdict applies to these performances of Schubert’s last and most substantial Mass settings.

As with his readings of the symphonies Harnoncourt does not play down the lyrical side of Schubert’s muse but he does favour, as he tends to in other music, razor-sharp accents and fully-observed dynamic contrasts. Actually, I find this a helpful approach in both of these Masses.

I’ve sung in several performances of D950 but I’ve only ever experienced D678 as a listener. Paradoxically, I consider D678, the work I only know from the outside, so to speak, to be the finer piece. I wonder if this is anything to do with the respective gestation periods of the two works? D 950, a very late work, was composed in 1828. On the other hand D 678 occupied Schubert on and off over an extended period of time. He began it in 1819 but did not complete it until 1822. Despite this lengthy time-span it seems to me that the creative fires burned more strongly in the earlier work. In particular, Schubert resorted much more readily to fugal endings in D 950. The Gloria in that Mass ends with a lengthy fugue, while that which concludes the Credo is longer still. Both the Sanctus and Benedictus end in the same way with a fugal ‘Osanna’. It’s in these passages in particular that I feel Schubert’s inspiration tends to flag though I’m sure there’s ample technical prowess on display. By contrast, in D678 only the Gloria contains a fugue and the work is much more interesting as a result, I think.

There are more imaginative touches too in D 678, I find. These include a telling use of crescendo in the Credo at ‘Et incarnatus est’ to convey a sense of wonder. Again, in the same movement at the ‘Crucifixus’ a heavy tread underpins the music, making it sound like a trudge to Calvary. I also like the dancing ’Osanna’ in the Sanctus and Benedictus. There’s a great deal of beautiful music in D 950 but somehow Schubert doesn’t quite match his achievement in D 678.

It’s clear that both these Masses mean a great deal to Harnoncourt. He is quoted in the booklet comparing them to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, regarding all these three compositions as the "greatest, most important and artistically significant attempts to come to terms with the Christian liturgy …. these works have an expressive force that is quite literally capable of stirring us to the very depths of our souls." High praise indeed from such a fine musician!

Certainly Harnoncourt lavishes great care and attention to detail on both these Masses. As I’ve indicated earlier, he consistently makes a great deal of the dynamic contrasts that Schubert builds into these scores and that’s vital if the music is to make its full effect. In saying that, however, I mustn’t give the impression that the dynamic contrasts are excessively or pedantically observed. These are performances that are faithful to the score but not restricted by that fidelity. I also found Harnoncourt’s pacing of both works consistently satisfying. He is aided by fine playing from the CoE and by expert, committed singing from the Arnold Schoenberg Chor. I’m sure it helps that the conductor has worked regularly with both ensembles. The soloists have relatively little to do but they sing well.

The recorded sound is good though I found that on my equipment I obtained best results if I played the CDs at a slightly higher volume setting than usual. Though both performances are apparently ‘live’ I could not detect any obtrusive audience noise. There’s a decent note about the music (in English, French and German) and, happily, even though the discs are offered at bargain price the Latin texts are supplied, though there are no translations.

All in all these are very well executed, highly musical and considered performances, which will give much pleasure. A stimulating pair of CDs that make an attractive bargain.

John Quinn

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