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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.