Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Mass for Double Choir (1926) [28 :10]
Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Missa Brevis (1944) [31 :24]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936) [7 :44]
Max Hanft (organ)
Bavarian Radio Chorus/Peter Dijkstra
rec. Stadthalle, Germering, March 2007 (Martin) and Herz-Jesu-Kirche, Munich, September 2008
BR KLASSIK 403571900500 [67:05]

Frank Martin, an intensely devout man, wrote that his Mass for Double Choir was meant as “something between God and me”. Most of the work was composed in 1922, but then the composer set it aside until 1926. True to his feelings about the work, he then withheld it for nearly four decades, the first performance only taking place in 1963. It is one of the greatest works in the unaccompanied choral repertoire.

Kodály’s Missa Brevis started out as a work for organ alone, to accompany the different parts of the service with appropriate music. The composer then broadened it into the work for choir and organ that is recorded here, and later still he produced a version with orchestra. The first performance took place in February 1945, at the Budapest Opera. This sounds glamorous, but that was far from the case, as the city was under siege and for security reasons the work was given in one of the cloakrooms. In spite of the grandeur of the organ part, the Missa Brevis retains elements of its folk origin, reflecting its original liturgical use in country churches. There are moments of drama, whilst others retain a childlike playfulness. It is a masterpiece.

BRKLASSIK is the label of Bavarian Radio. All the more surprising, then, that the booklet is so disappointing. The Artistic Director of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, and conductor on this disc, Peter Dijkstra, looks very fetching in his photograph, and it’s good to have information about him and about the choir. But the programme note is inadequate, omitting important information in favour of observations which are ambiguous, dubious or, in the case of the premise on which the final paragraph is built, simply wrong. Then most music lovers might - and I put it no higher than that - be familiar enough with the text of the Mass not to need it printed in the booklet. The same, however, cannot be said for the words of Poulenc’s Litanies à Vierge Noire: these are essential. For women’s voices and organ, the Poulenc was perhaps a strange choice to end this collection, but it is a strikingly beautiful work, and receives an excellent performance here, one which demonstrates well the contrast between the devout, inward nature of much of the music and the few dramatic passages.

Listening to the Poulenc one is immediately struck by the beauty of the sound. The women’s voices are rich and pure, and the organ, superbly recorded with a real feeling of the building, sounds wonderful. Let me add to this a remarkable clarity of texture, immediately audible in the opening organ solo of the Kodály. Every strand can be heard, every note of every chord. The instrument, the acoustic, the outstanding work of the sound engineers, all these play their part, but above all I salute the superb phrasing and registration of the organist Max Hanft. I have rarely heard more beautiful choral sound than this, and blend, unanimity and tuning are all impeccable. Why, then, does the performance ultimately fail to satisfy? Kodály’s Mass is essentially an unsophisticated work, but Dijkstra seems unwilling to see it that way, and conducts a rather interventionist performance. The first signs of this are when he makes too much of the accents at the end of the Kyrie, though I dismissed this on first hearing as simply a point of view different from my own. The Gloria which follows is marked Allegro, but Dijkstra’s tempo is sober, weighty rather than exuberant. The soloists in Qui tollis sing in a forthright, almost operatic style, and the tempo, marked Adagio, is very slow indeed, surely too slow, lachrymose at this speed, a metronome point too far. Dijkstra then ruins the stunning “Amens” by inserting a dramatic silence just before the first one. In the Credo, the sopranos phrase “Deum de Deo” should sound like trumpets, but it’s too smooth and beautiful here, as is the Crucifixus, which should be harrowing. As a final example, you’d never know that the phrase “Confiteor unum baptisma” was only marked Poco sostenuto (a little sustained) in the score. The Mass ends with an Ite, missa est for solo organ to which Kodály later added choral parts. It is this choral version which is given here, a valid choice, if only because the composer encouraged it, but the effect of framing the work with solo organ music is lost.

Many of my misgivings spill over into the performance of Martin’s sublime Mass. In this work a deeply religious man who also happens to be a composer of genius, explores the mysteries of faith. Martin was Swiss and of Calvinist stock. He was also devoted to the music of Bach. For these reasons the music of his Mass is passionately expressive whilst maintaining a certain classical reserve, almost as if showing too much feeling would be improper in the circumstances. This tension leads to moments where the music is almost unbearably intense. In this reading tempi tend to be on the slow side, that in a score littered with indications such as “do not drag”, “with movement” and even, at one point, “with élan”. Furthermore, the conductor frequently lingers at the ends of phrases, lengthens silences and so on. The result, near-criminal in this work, is that some passages sound sentimental. This is true of much of the Kyrie, especially the end, where simple observance of the score’s demands - a sudden slowing of tempo six bars before the end - would better have served the composer’s intentions. The striking passage in the Gloria beginning with the words “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” is far too slow, and unnecessarily so, since the effect is already achieved by the held chords in the second choir, complete with bottom Ds. Et incarnatus, simply marked “slow”, suffers similarly. The Agnus Dei is a miracle of musical alchemy, its expressive power almost at bursting point whilst at the same time a perfect example of restraint and personal and musical humility. Not here: Dijkstra takes an indulgent 5:21 over it, whereas one of my preferred readings gets through it, to far greater effect, in 4:17. One last point: the next to last bar of the work, the first syllable of the word “Pacem”, contains five beats, 2 + 2 + 1. Almost all conductors tend to hold on the final beat of the bar, a mistake in my view. In Dijkstra’s hands the five beats become six, calm and comforting, inappropriately so.

These are among the most beautiful performances of the two marvellous masses that I have heard, but both rather miss the point. There is a very fine performance of the Kodály by Danish forces on Chandos, with the final movement given in its choral version. As to the Martin, the performance which in my view comes closest to that extraordinary amalgam of passion and restraint is a live one, warts and all, from the BBC Singers under John Poole, recorded in 1980 and once available on the BBC Radio Classics label. There is a wonderful alternative available, though, on Hyperion, from the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under James O’Donnell. This performance features boys’ voices, of course, but they seem ideally suited to the nature of the music, and their upper register is absolutely thrilling. Luckily for us, they also recorded the Kodály, also for Hyperion, which is my preferred version of that work too.

William Hedley