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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Motets: Os justi (1879) [4.46]; Christus factus est (1884) [5.05]; Ave Maria (1861) [3.47]; Afferentur regi with three trombones (1861) [1.59]; Tantum ergo I [2.35]; Tantum ergo II [2.13]; Tantum ergo III [2.51]; Tantum ergo IV [2.35]; Tantum ergo V (with organ) [2.51] (all settings 1846); Vexilla Regis (1892) [5.34]; Virga Jesse (1885) [3.21]; Locus iste (1869) [2.28]; Ave Maria (solo soprano, alto solo, organ) (1856) [4.26]; Pange Lingua (1878) [4.38]; Tota pulcra (1878) [4.38]; Ecce sacerdos magnus (with three trombones and organ) (1885) [6.54]; Libera me, (three trombones and organ) (1854) [7.29]
Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno/ Petr Fiala
rec. Brno, 28-30 January 2006. DDD

What is the first thing you do when you bring home the new CD and have opened up the packaging? You might put it straight into the player, in which case, with this disc, you would be immediately impressed. On the other hand you might first attempt to navigate the booklet and find out about the music and the composer/s, discover the texts where applicable and learn about the performers. Well, letís assume for now that you do the latter.

You see the back of the CD box and note that the pieces have been recorded, not in chronological order, thatís OK, but in a random order, as here with all of the Tantum Ego settings, the earliest pieces, one after the other beginning from track 5. In the booklet you read the essay by Winfried Kirsch - which at times, especially in the opening page in its translation seems to struggle with the English language and also appears to address a rather intellectual audience Ė and find that the pieces are considered in a different order. And then you note that the texts are set out in the back in a third order quite unrelated to the other two. So, sorry, MDG, presentation: Grade F.

Nevertheless we are here to consider the music and the performances and from this point onwards itís all pretty positive.

Discs of just the Bruckner motets are rare, normally a few of them will be utilized as fillers for other works like one of the Masses, or motets by Brucknerís contemporaries say Reger. The Corydon Singers on Hyperion and the Choir of St. Brides on Naxos have the complete motets. I have not heard these discs but I do know of several other versions of certain of the motets with which I can compare.

Brucknerís church music incorporates a wide span of his compositional life and anyone who knows anything at all about him will know what a deeply spiritual and religious man he was, naively so it has been said. But do you also know that he was very fond of dancing? Johann Strauss he especially loved. Sacred and Profane side but side, perhaps it was that tension that was the driving force. Sometimes a devil seems to push him on, behind the conflicts in his music. You can hear this in the demonic scherzos of the symphonies and also see it in his life and in his lack of self-confidence. That said the church music hardly lacks self-confidence except that is with his Tantum ergo a text that he set to music five times in 1846 in a slightly varied way, as a young church musician and organist. The last version is with organ as indeed are three other later motets. If no organ was involved and a more noble sound was required then Bruckner specified the unique addition of three trombones. We are offered three examples here. Both organ and trombones were sometimes deployed to produce a majestic, symphonic effect.†

In tracking Brucknerís career we find him in three significant centres, St. Florian, (1845-56), Linz from 1856, and Vienna from 1868. With the earliest pieces: the settings of the Tantum ergo dating from the first period, his language is fairly simple and often homophonic and hymn-like. There are also two settings of Ave Maria, the one for two soloists being rather classical. The rest of the motets, including the famous ones like Virga Jesse, date from his maturity. And of course while these motets and choral pieces are being written he is, all the time, working at his symphonic output. One stream of inspiration is inextricably bound with the other; so much so that melodic lines and harmonic progressions that you readily recognize in the motets can be heard also in the symphonies and masses.

I have much enjoyed many aspects of the Czech Philharmonic Choirís performances. The booklet photograph seems to show a choir of about fifty. Too unwieldy? Well, possibly but to counteract this danger Petr Fialaís tempi certainly do not drag, quite the reverse. Compared with say, the Chamber Choir of Stuttgart on Sony (nla) the Czech choir take one minute quicker over Locus iste and Christus factus est and half a minute more over Virga Jesse. The Stuttgart choir is very sensitive to every textual nuance but a smaller group can do that too. A large choir is often more easily held in check by a quicker tempo perhaps to compensate. The Czech choirís sound is rich, beautifully balanced and passionate. The soloists are generally very suitable and intonation is unproblematic. Particularly pleasing are the moments of subito dynamics which produce some dramatic hushed effects. The singers are aided by a warm and welcoming SACD recording in Dabringhaus and Grimmís Gold series that aids rather than obstructs communication between performers and listener. Altogether, a disc worth searching out.

Gary Higginson



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