Scherchen left two commercial recordings of the B minor Mass, both
in the 1950s, and both taped in Vienna. The performances are entirely
consonant with Scherchen’s accepted imperatives – extremes of tempo
foremost – and not at all dissimilar. I last saw the 1959 performance
with Pierette Alarie, Nan Merriman, Leopold Simoneau and Gustav Neidlinger
on Westminster 471253. Those who have heard the Westminster Mozart
Requiem, recently licensed to, and released by, Tahra will know that
the approach was as consistent in liturgical music as it was in symphonic.
And such is very much the case here.
The most obvious stumbling point for current sensibilities occurs in the opening
Kyrie. This is a distended and exceptionally slow performance, and one that immediately
throws up a barrier. The chorus is a woolly one, highly - indeed singularly -
operatic in impress, and sporting some sopranos who seem keen to make a bid for
theatrical immortality. Blending is not a strong point nor is there a remotely
consistent approach to tone where we find a big variety of vibratos on offer.
The basses are better whilst the tenors are a touch weak. Once one accepts these
features – if indeed one does – the path to following Scherchen becomes that
Scherchen feasted on contrasts – contrasts of tempo and contrasts of dynamics.
His two Kyries are therefore subjected to maximal Scherchian contrast by virtue
of a defiant and uplifting Christe Eleison, by which the two Kyries are
bisected. The two sopranos are good here and they make for a fruitful tonal contrast – Loose
clear and tight, Ceska taking her part low and well. Scherchen piles on dynamic
extremes and textual contrasts in the Gloria.
Dermota surprised me in this recording; he’s not very good. He sounds rather
strangled in the duet Domine Deus and is convincingly outsung by Loose.
He’s no competition for an artist like Simoneau in the later recording. I also
fail to follow him in the Benedictus – who is the uncredited violinist?
Willy Boskovsky invariably did the honours with the Vienna State/Philharmonic
- where Dermota starts crooning like Al Bowlly. And the alto Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster
dismally fails to convince in Qui sedes, which finds her wobbly, pitch
deficient and halting going up, where her vocal colour sheds alarmingly. For
some strange reason she recovers in the Agnus Dei where she was obviously
more comfortable and she redeems herself. Poell proves a noble, straightforward
but engaging presence; a non-cavernous bass of warmth in the Quoniam and Et
in spiritum sanctum.
Elsewhere we find some excellent wind playing – flutes in particular - and some
alert string playing in patches. If one finds the Crucifixus too slow
then one might give Scherchen the benefit of expressive doubt in respect of the
architectural wholeness he is trying to establish.
The notes are bi-lingual, French and English, and there is a reproduction of
the beginning of the Credo in Scherchen’s score, with vigorous blue pencil
markings and a host of other instructions. For him this was a living text; a
source of drama and commitment.