Messe in As-Dur, D678 (1822) [45:19]
Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano), Ruth Sandhoff (alto), Andreas Karasiak
Tobis Berndt (bass)
Stuttgarter Kantorei. Stiftsphilharmonie Stuttgart/Kay Johannsen
rec. Ev. Kirche Stuttgart-Gaisburg, 15-18 April 2009
CARUS 83.436 [45:19]
The Carus label seems to specialise in clean recordings of performances infused with refinement and clarity, and this Mass in A flat major is no exception. Kay Johannsen has appeared before on the Carus label, producing some highly regarded recordings as an organist, but his work as conductor of the Stuttgarter Kantorei and Stiftsphilharmonie Stuttgart are no less a significant part of his musical activities, and his recordings with soloist vocal ensemble Stimmkunst have also been received with critical acclaim.
Of Schubert’s six Latin masses, the Messe in As-Dur, D678 is his fifth, and ambitious in scale. His intention was to dedicate it to Emperor Franz I, but as is often the way with noble patrons, the emperor is said to have preferred his masses more compact and straightforward. The piece is a combination of church style counterpoint, represented in the Kyrie which gives a romantic turn to a more antique linear style, and symphonic form in the thematic recapitulations and other features in the subsequent Gloria. This aspect of the piece provides interesting contrast rather than giving a feel of stylistic discontinuity, and Schubert’s trademark melodic strength is something which holds the larger forms together very nicely indeed.
This recording and performance as a whole is of the very highest standard, with a nice balance between choir and orchestra, and the soloists not unnaturally forward. The soloists are a very strong team, with Andrea Lauren Brown’s pure soprano tones deserving special mention. As one might expect, the choral intonation and phrasing is usually impeccable, though one soprano does stick out for one momentarily unguarded rather forced note 2:26 into the Domine Deus, and the soprano group does occasionally fall a little below the note on high melodic peaks. There isn’t an especially ‘period’ emphasis in the performance and modern instruments are used, though as mentioned, clarity and a lightness of touch is an important part of the performance, even in grander tutti passages.
I have but two criticisms for this release. At only 45 minutes or so you would expect something like this to be really special, and while this performance is very good indeed I didn’t feel it ‘took off’ in quite the way I would have hoped. There is a feeling of infinite care in the preparation which isn’t quite unleashed in a sense of maximum dramatic effect and invention and renewal in the performance. This is a recording which is admirably understated, but I would suggest needs that little bit of extra edge – that sense of spontaneous joy in which the shackles of preciousness are shaken off. They never really are however, and we get Schubert – wonderful in every regard, but preserved under glass rather than paraded shoulder-high through the streets. Taking just one comparison, Bruno Weil’s recording of this work on Sony is coupled with an entire Deutsche Messe and still only comes to about 60 minutes. Like Johannsen, Weil doesn’t interpose a great deal of licence in terms of interpretation, and for this I respect both conductors. With the more characterful tones of Weil’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment there is a less generalised overall effect however, though I suspect I will live happier with Johannsen’s soloists rather than the treble and countertenor voices used by Weil for the upper reaches. In the end the gorgeous singing of the soloists at moments such as the Benedictus do swing things in Stuttgart’s favour, and the Messe in As-Dur is a work capable of standing on its own. If this work is in your must-have list, then this recording will do you very well indeed. I suspect if I was counting my hard-earned Euros in the shop I would leave it there however, just because of the timing, something which by the way is in this case not advertised on the back cover.
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