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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Aequalis Nos. 1 and 2 (1847) [4.02]
Libera Me (1854) [7.20]
Mass in E minor (1866) [41.48]
Corydon Singers
Colin Sheen, Roger Brenner, Phillip Brown (trombones)
Thomas Martin (double bass)
John Scott (organ)
English Chamber Orchestra Wind Ensemble/Matthew Best
rec. 29-30 March, 1 April 1985. DDD
HELIOS CDH55277 [53.12] 


Bruckner’s masses date from the mid-1860s, the period when he had just finished his seven-year period of study with Simon Sechter. The symphonies nos. 0 and 1 also date from this period. Bruckner had not yet developed his feel for the development of large-scale forms. He had only just begun to discover Wagner and his models were still essentially classical.

Of the three masses, those in D minor and F minor are very much based on the classical models of Haydn and Mozart. But in the Mass in E minor, Bruckner experimented with new textures and new ideas. The mass is written for choir and wind band, rather than full orchestra, and in construction it looks both backward and forward. The mass is heavily indebted to Bruckner’s studies of Palestrina and even quotes from Palestrina's Missa Brevis. But the long suspensions, floating harmony and clear sense of space look forward to Bruckner’s larger-scale symphonies.

The choir is not strictly accompanied by the wind band. Bruckner brings the instruments in and out of the textures quite often leaving the singers unsupported. In many ways his use of accompaniment is reminiscent of Liszt’s motets and Missa Choralis, where the organ is used with a similar sense of flexibility.

Sometimes the instruments support the singers and sometimes they comment on what is happening. In many ways, Bruckner uses the wind band rather like a second choir.

This recording of the E minor Mass has been in the catalogue for over twenty years. It has now been re-issued by Hyperion on their budget-priced Helios label – a repackaging which is very useful given that the original CD was rather short at 53 minutes running time.

Matthew Best and his choir give one of the finest performances off the mass on disc. There is no doubt that the Corydon Singers give a finely crafted and expressive performance, beautifully shaping Bruckner’s lines and fearlessly handling the trickier aspects of the vocal writing. If you do not possess a copy of this mass, then this disc is the one for you.

But, listening to the recording again I became aware that the performance is not quite perfect. There are one or two little slips which don’t really matter at all. More importantly, there is the issue of the size of the choir. This is a performance by a chamber choir and given the work’s instrumental forces, this is perfectly possible. The gains, in terms of flexibility and unanimity of purpose, are very great; thanks to the finely honed nature of the choir. Best can shapes the music in a quite beautiful manner.

But as I listened I was aware that there were occasions when the choir sounded  stretched. This came at points where Bruckner’s music would have responded to the greater amplitude of tone that a larger group could give. Of course, working with a larger choral group would mean that the conductor would not necessarily have the amount of control that Best has on this disc.

Another issue is the very English tone of the choir. This applies both to their style of singing and to their diction. The sound-world is very much English choral and beautiful though this is, it might not be what you want in a Bruckner mass. Also the choir sing the Latin in standard English/Italianate Latin whereas I would have thought that Germanic pronunciation might have been a little more appropriate.

The mass is accompanied by a nice sequence of the two Aequalis for trombones and the motet, Libera me, for choir, trombones, cello, double bass and organ. By placing the motet between the two Aequalis, Best gives these short pieces the weight they lack on their own and also sets the lovely motet off quite beautifully.

These are fine performances which have stood the test of time. Perhaps not quite blemish free, but pretty near perfect given the taxing nature of Bruckner’s writing. 

Robert Hugill




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