Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Tota Pulchra es, Maria (1878) [4:59]
Aequale I [1:38]
O ihr, die ihr heut mit mir zum Grabe geht (Zwei Totenlieder I) (1852) [1:21]
Ave Maria (1861) [3:18]
Afferentur Regi (1861) [2:02]
Christus factus est (1884) [4:43]
Ecce sacerdos (1885) [6:08]
Virga Jesse (1885) [3:42]
Locus iste (1869) [2:57]
Pange lingua (1868) [5:22]
Jam lucis orto sidere dignare [3:58]
Aequale II [1:18]
Libera me (F minor) (1854) [6:23]
O ihr, die ihr heut mit mir zum Grabe geht (Zwei Totenlieder II) (1852) [1:32]
Vexilla Regis (1892) [4:35]
Os justi (1879) [5:17]
Inveni David (1868) [2:47]
The Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh/Duncan Ferguson
rec. 31 May – 4 June 2010, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34071 [62:10]

A little while ago I was impressed by another Delphian disc on which Duncan Ferguson led his Edinburgh choir in a programme by the Tudor master, John Taverner (review). Here they take on vastly different music.

For those who, like me, first came to know Bruckner’s sacred music though Eugen Jochum’s devoted readings for DG, the approach of Duncan Ferguson may come as something of a shock. Where Jochum, using what I imagine was a much larger chorus – the Bavarian Radio Choir – is reverent and perhaps slightly soft-edged, Ferguson is assertive and encourages his singers to be full-throated and often dramatic.

This is apparent right from the start where Oliver Brewer, the solo tenor in Tota Pulchra es, Maria, adopts an unashamedly fervent approach, which is not one that might be expected in the British Cathedral tradition. But he sings very well indeed, the music can take it and the performance, in which he’s supported by an equally ardent choir, is a success. Ferguson makes the most of Bruckner’s dynamic contrasts, something that proves to be a feature of the whole programme. By contrast the Jochum performance sounds a bit pallid.

A little later in the programme comes Ave Maria and here again the ardour is in evidence at times. Some may feel the performance is too emotional but I think it works. Christus factus est, one of Bruckner’s finest vocal works, is given a thoughtful yet forthright performance and Locus iste is suitably reflective yet the performance has backbone. The attack at the start of Ecce sacerdos is thrilling and I think Ferguson really conveys the grandeur of this piece. Some may think the choir’s way with Virga Jesse is too forceful in places. I don’t; and I particularly admire the way in which the Edinburgh choristers (a mix of boy trebles and girls) are fearless in confronting Bruckner’s demands in this piece.

I welcome the fact that Duncan Ferguson has opted to include some less familiar items. I’d never heard the Zwei Totenlieder before. Both set the same text. Neither is top-drawer Bruckner but the pieces, which I suspect are both for four-part unaccompanied choir, are worth hearing. Also new to me was Jam lucis orto sidere dignare, an evening hymn, also for a four-part unaccompanied choir but here only male voices are employed. The homophonic writing has an atmospheric monastic feel to it. I’m a little surprised that this rarity is not mentioned in Duncan Ferguson’s very useful notes. I’d heard the setting of Libera me before, though it’s not one of Bruckner’s better-known pieces. Ferguson’s performance brings out the austere grandeur of the writing.

This is a very fine disc. Bruckner’s symphonies are sometimes referred to as ‘cathedrals in sound’. Those who subscribe to that view might perhaps regard his motets as side chapels – or oratories – within a musical cathedral. Actually, just as the cathedral analogy is unhelpful in the case of the symphonies so Duncan Ferguson establishes that a muscular approach is entirely valid in these pieces. It’s very interesting to compare his way with the music and that of Eugen Jochum. The German conductor was a renowned interpreter of the symphonies whereas Ferguson, who perhaps has never conducted a Bruckner symphony, approaches them from a different standpoint, I suspect, as a church musician. Perhaps Jochum was a bit too steeped in the symphonies and in the German tradition generally. I shan’t discard his performances, which I still respect highly, but I admire Ferguson’s fresh perspective.

This is an excellent disc. The performances are thrilling and intense and they are captured in an excellent recording that mixes spaciousness and clarity. The contributions of the uncredited organist (Nicholas Wearne?) and the RSAMD trombonists add a splendid sonority to some of the items. Duncan Ferguson offers a bracing approach to Bruckner, which I find very stimulating. I’d like to hear him and his choir in Bruckner’s E minor Mass.

John Quinn

A bracing approach to Bruckner’s church music.