The music of Egon Wellesz has never, I think, been what you might call ‘box office’. His larger-scale works, in particular, rarely, if ever, feature in concert halls, though the enterprising CPO label has issued recordings of his symphonies in the last few years. (See reviews of Symphonies 2 and 9
, of Symphonies 4, 6 and 7
, Symphonies 1 and 8
and Symphonies 3 and 5
). In 2008 Nimbus issued a CD of three of his string quartets (review
). Now they follow up that release with a disc of choral music.
I won’t go into detail about Wellesz’s life and music here. For that I’ll refer you to the article
on his symphonies by Paul Conway. Suffice to say that he was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, converting to Roman Catholicism later in his life. He pursued a career as a composer and musical academic in Vienna but had the good fortune to be in Holland at the time of the 1938 Anschluss and was able to make his way to England where, in January 1939, he became a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. The city became his home for the rest of his life.
So it’s very fitting that it should be an Oxford choir that performs his choral music here. The recording has been “in the can” for some four years but its belated emergence is very welcome.
The music isn’t easy. For the most part it’s serious in countenance but I found it very rewarding, and one piece particularly so, as we shall see. I Sing of a Maiden
was written for two-part female choir but here it’s done – very nicely – by male voices. It’s a relatively simple piece and rather touching. To Sleep
, however, is a much tougher proposition. It’s a setting of lines by John Keats that equates sleep with death. Wellesz uses the 12-tone technique to create a piece that’s grave and very expressive. It challenges both performers and listeners but it’s an effective setting.
Wellesz composed five settings of the Mass and this disc contains his first and last essays in the genre. The Missa Brevis
is, as its title implies, a concentrated setting. The Kyrie is penitential in tone, though quite restrained. The Gloria begins fairly brightly but soon becomes less extrovert. For the most part the setting is intense rather than joyful. The Sanctus is subdued to start with, high and low voices alternating before coming together in more forceful music. The “Pleni sunt coeli” is surprisingly low-key and even the “Hosanna” seems restrained. The movement ends thoughtfully and quietly. The Benedictus is very concise, though here the “Hosanna” is more outgoing than was the case in the Sanctus. The grave Agnus Dei contains some of the most harmonically challenging music in the whole Mass and it’s a bit of a surprise when the piece resolves onto a quiet major chord at the very end. This austere Mass setting may lack surface appeal but it contains some thoughtful and worthwhile music.
For me, the big discovery is the Mass in F. (That’s how it’s billed on the track-listing though Calum MacDonald, in his excellent booklet note, refers to it as being in F minor and I suspect that’s correct.) MacDonald describes the work as “masterly but profoundly troubled” and it may be significant that it was composed in the year following Hitler’s accession to power in Germany. The Kyrie is powerful and impressive. The music is deeply felt and I hear a good deal of apprehension yet there’s also a grave beauty. It may be an indication of where this Mass setting’s emotional centre of gravity lies that the Gloria, though its text is much longer, actually lasts for a shorter time than the Kyrie (4:04 against 5:28). Though the Gloria is cheerful at first it’s by no means exuberant. Before long the mood becomes more thoughtful and this is even preserved at “Cum sancto spiritu”.
The Credo is the most substantial movement. The music reflects very well the changing moods of the text and it’s an impressive piece of writing. At the subdued “Crucifixus” I admired not just the fine singing but also the imaginative organ registration adopted by Clive Driskill-Smith. After this at “Et Resurrexit” the music emerges almost uncertainly into the light, gradually growing in confidence. We find another imaginative touch at “Et expecto”, which has an air of awe-struck anticipation. The Sanctus contains the most extrovert music in the whole setting, culminating in joyful music at “Hosanna.” The Agnus Dei is a substantial movement, containing intense and serious music. We’re back to the mood of the Kyrie. It builds to a powerful climax at “Dona nobis pacem”, which is a strong plea for peace, perhaps reflecting the times, but then the music subsides to a peaceful, beautiful close.
This is an enormously impressive setting of the Mass. It can’t be easy to sing – though it’s very well done here – and the air of seriousness is emphasised by the fact that the organ part, though important, is discreet and provides little more than accompaniment to the voices. I think it’s nothing short of scandalous that this Mass setting isn’t heard more often and I hope that this fine recording will bring it to wider attention and lead to other choirs taking it up.
The standard of performance on this CD is very high and I take off my hat to Stephen Darlington’s choir for making such a fine showing in music that must have been unfamiliar to them. The sympathetic acoustic of Merton College Chapel, famous for so many Tallis Scholars recordings, is an asset and the engineers have recorded the choir very well.
This CD has been something of an ear-opener for me. I urge all collectors who have already investigated Wellesz the symphonist to give this disc a hearing. It is also well worth the attention of any choral collector with an enquiring ear.
Gary Higginson has also listened to this recording
Although I have been assiduously collecting the Egon Wellesz
on CPO) and the recent String Quartets on Nimbus (NI5823)
it came as a bit of a surprise to find a recording had emerged
of some of his church music.
Several years ago I put on a performance, with a girls’ choir,
of Wellesz’s brief setting of Fletcher’s ‘See, the day begins
to break’. Even so I if I had thought about it at all I would
have concluded that Wellesz was Jewish and therefore did not
write church music. He did however convert to Catholicism and
there are, as a consequence five mass settings, the earliest
and the last are recorded here.
The Mass in F is big piece and as such would struggle
now, even in a Cathedral setting. After all ‘modern’ worship
does not like the choir to sing the Creed, although that by
Wellesz is especially rapt and ‘spiritual’ reminiscent of Rubbra
(also a Catholic convert). Similarly contemporary practice has
turned its face against such a long ‘Agnus dei’ except while
the Communion is being received. Nevertheless the Wellesz Gloria
is succinct without being abrupt. The Kyrie is one of the most
moving I have ever encountered, starting from a painful pianissimo
opening to climax on a major chord for ‘Christe eleison’. This
heart-felt plea for mercy then falls back into a quiet ending.
The Sanctus has several tricky solo passages and it’s in this
movement that you become more aware of the organ which has mainly
acted in a supporting role upholding the pitch. In the ‘Agnus
dei’ the organ is even more dominant. This lengthy setting reverts
to the anguished language of the Kyrie. One is reminded that
its date of composition is 1934 and its world is that of Hitler’s
Germany. No wonder Wellesz prophetically repeats ‘dona nobis
pacem’, never wanting to let go. It’s wonderful to hear the
work on this CD in such a very committed performance.
In 1938 the composer made his home in Britain and felt an attraction
to English texts. If you are familiar with the settings of the
fifteenth century poem ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Patrick
Hadley and Lennox Berkeley then the Wellesz will not disappoint.
It is for three upper voices and, as a lover of English medieval
music to which Wellesz is responding, I can’t stop playing it.
Although mainly homophonic there are passing notes. The work
possesses a lovely contrapuntal flow with occasional dissonances.
The simplicity of the setting is most affecting and the piece
should be much better known.
The motet, if I may call it that, ‘Offertorium in Ascensione
Domini’ has no opus number and is in Latin. Early Messiaen
may come to mind as, in its brevity, it grows towards its ecstatic
final ‘Alleluia’. Incidentally no text or translation is offered
for this or for the Mass.
The Missa Brevis is much more succinct than the Mass
in F and is beautiful and moving. Wellesz’s life-long interest
in Byzantine music - he was lecturer in the subject in Oxford
for nine years soon after the war - can be felt in the homophonic
sections especially in the central part of the Gloria and in
the Sanctus. The melodies have an affectingly memorable quality
and simplicity in many places and also a logical flow. The Agnus
Dei I found particularly expressive. I can’t help but feel that
the choir has tried out this Mass in an act of worship.
But it’s not just church music that Wellesz composed as the
setting of Fletcher, mentioned above, might indicate. This slightly
ungenerously filled CD ends with a setting of Keats’ ‘To
Sleep’. It seems appropriate in a way for a composer aged
80, beginning ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight’ - a meditation
on sleep and death. Britten set it in the ‘Serenade’ over twenty
years previously. Wellesz’s piece is demanding, as all twelve-tone
works can be, but it is wonderfully and evocatively performed
here. The harmonies are perfectly tuned and the style well understood
with the melody line beautifully articulated. Basically quiet
this work reaches a climax only to fade back into nothingness.
It’s a little curious, no matter how good the acoustic is in
Merton College, that the Cathedral choir did not record this
disc in their own building where I feel the voices can soar
a little more effectively and where the intonation is a little
less exposed. There are some wobbly moments in that regard.
Even so this disc comes with a ‘highly recommended’ sticker
from me as you have realized. It could be that these masses
may start to find a regular home in the liturgy just as the
composer would have desired and certainly as they so much deserve.
also review by Rob Barnett