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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
CD 1 [73:48]
Mass in A flat D678* (1819-1826) [47:34]
Mass in C D452** (1816) [25:40]
CD 2 [70:44]
Mass in E flat D950* (1828) [56:52]
Tantum ergo D962** (1828) [3:53]
Offertorium D963* (1828) [9:47]
Helen Donath, Lucia Popp (sopranos); Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo); Francisco Araiza, Adolf Dallapozza, Peter Schreier (tenors); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bass)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. *1980 ADD/DDD, **1981 DDD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3815192 [73:48 + 70:44]


This well-filled EMI Gemini set of the last three Schubert masses, Tantum ergo and Offertorium appeared on the label's double fforte series in 1999. The mix of analogue and digital recordings represents a performing tradition that is best described – not unkindly – as ‘old fashioned’. Hardly surprising, given that the veteran conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch (b. 1923) is among the last of the old kapellmeister line. There are newer, period-instrument performances and I suspect these two very different approaches could be the deciding factor for most buyers. 

The opening of the Mass in A flat (No. 5) makes it abundantly clear this is a performance ‘in the olden style’. The sound is massive, sonorous, the shaping of the music somewhat foursquare. The soloists are much too close in the Kyrie, although thankfully they seem to drop back in later movements Unfortunately this close miking emphasises the glare of the analogue recording and is particularly unforgiving of soprano Helen Donath’s vocal imperfections.

The choral singing is of the old school too: dry, disciplined and perhaps a little too reverential. Gravitas certainly has its place in this work but it needs to be lifted in the surging Sanctus, where joy is in short supply. That said the felicities of Schubert's instrumental writing are always a pleasure to hear (note the serene close of the Kyrie and the pizzicato strings in the Benedictus). ‘Olden style’ in its execution, perhaps, but this is Schubert sounding much more Romantic and more forward looking than he does in D452, written in 1816. 

Cast in the affirmative key of C, Mass No. 4 (D452) is a much better balanced DDD recording blessed with the glorious singing of the late (and much lamented) Lucia Popp. She is radiant in the Kyrie and Benedictus especially and, as if galvanised by her presence, Sawallisch finds a corresponding radiance in the music. The Hosannas ring out with real joy and the Sanctus has a spring in its step, a world away from the more deliberate tread adopted in the Sanctus of the A flat Mass. 

Speaking of 'the olden style' the Mass in C looks back to Haydn and Mozart in terms of its instrumental writing and the choral contributions are strongly reminiscent of Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung (1796-98), especially in its more joyous moments. It's certainly no worse for being more traditional and the quality of the performances makes it by far the most rewarding item on this disc. 

The Mass in E flat (No. 6), written in 1828, is the last of Schubert’s works in the genre. The Kyrie is darker, the textures sparer, and there is a real sense of the composer at the peak of his powers. The material is more vigorously worked and at times the more exposed choral writing recalls the Kyrie of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, premiered just four years earlier. The orchestral writing is also freer, more eloquent, and Sawallisch provides a beautifully sprung orchestral accompaniment to the voices. Ana although this is an analogue recording the acoustic is much more pleasing to the ear than in D678, with instruments glowingly captured, especially in the closing bars of the Kyrie. 

The brass in the Gloria blaze when required but never overwhelm the chorus, which manages some splendid singing in the softer passages. They are more than a match for the timps and brass choir in this movement, which seems to temper praise with doubt. In the closing bars the music even looks forward to the sound world of Berlioz’s Requiem.(1837) and Te Deum (1849). 

The Credo, like the first two movements, focuses on the chorus but there is also some rapt, well-blended singing from the soloists over a muted pizzicato bass. The large-scale Sanctus has that familiar swing that Schubert seems to like for this music, and the mass moves towards a kind of serenity with a moving Agnus Dei. Not necessarily the utterances of a man confident in his faith but certainly those of a man showing great humility. 

As with the Gemini set of Villa-Lobos I reviewed recently this one doesn’t start too well either. But performance styles aside the first disc is worth hearing for Lucia Popp’s glorious singing and the second has a very impressive performance of No. 6. The fillers, also late works, are given similarly attractive performances, although Peter Schreier’s plaintive tenor may not be to everyone’s taste. 

If the ‘olden style’ does not appeal there is an alternative in the shape of Bruno Weil and The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment on Sony Classical (although the couplings are different). Apart from a leaner, more transparent period-instrument sound the Weil discs also have the advantage of boys voices for the chorus (in this case the Vienna Boys’ Choir). That certainly adds to the more focused, bracing sound and the performances, though swiftish, are well worth auditioning. Not a stellar cast of soloists but then it’s the performance style that will probably decide which set you choose. 

These are highly rewarding works that really should be part of your collection. And even though Weil and Sawallisch are so very different and the Sony discs are not as reasonable as the Geminis, for maximum enjoyment I’d urge you to hear both. 

Dan Morgan


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