Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Mass in E flat major, D950* (1828) [50:05]
Mass in A flat major, D678 (1822) [53:31]
Luba Orgonasova (soprano); Birgit Remmert (alto); Deon van der Walt (tenor); Anton Scharinger (bass); Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone and tenor II)*
Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 24-25 June 1995, Stefaniensaal, Graz.
WARNER APEX 2564 67430-2 [50:05 + 53:31]

I came completely blind to these two works, the only large-scale masses Schubert wrote, in the hope that I would find in them the same emotional directness, melodic invention and combination of grandeur and pathos that I experience when listening to Schubertís greatest music. As it turns out, Iím afraid I cannot quite share Harnoncourtís enthusiasm for the earlier of these two works, the Mass in A flat of 1822, which strikes me as amongst the least inspired and least inspiring music that Schubert ever wrote. That is not to say that there are not striking and beautiful moments here, but by and large they are really rather ďtameĒ by comparison with the liturgical music of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven Ė or indeed the later Mass in E flat. Some of this has to do with the slightly distant acoustic of these live recordings, whereby the orchestra is very recessed compared with the voices, presumably the result of Harnoncourtís evident desire to underline the weightiness of what is ultimately often very conventional writing. He emphasises a polished beauty of line and the contribution of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is thus less vigorous and spicy than one might have wished.

The most original aspect of the earlier mass D678 is the prominence Schubert gives to the brass in an orchestra without flutes, according to the Viennese tradition, often introducing what sounds almost like hunting motifs. He also rather relies on repeated, chordal, punctuational figures for the brass which can sound gauche and over-emphatic. The Kyrie meanders somewhat, which could be said of quite a lot of this music. The over-long Gloria trundles along. The Credo begins with a bold, impressive brass fanfare followed by a slightly unconvincing fugue. Orgonasova notably soars both here and in the later mass, while the other soloists are competent, although I do not much care for Deon van der Waltís falsetto-biased tenor or the weak bass.

There is much more to enjoy in the D950 from 1828 and first performed posthumously. The most striking innovation here is Schubertís typically Romantic use of modulations, whereby the music suddenly takes unexpected directions. The opening of the Kyrie, with its warm blend of wind instruments, immediately signals a higher level of creativity and artistry than the D678 and the trio ďEt incarnatus estĒ for soprano and two tenors in the Credo is sublime. The subsequent fugue and the one in the Agnus Dei are both much more assured. Perhaps one of the reasons for the comparative neglect of what many consider to be yet another of the masterpieces written by Schubert in his final year is the four-square nature of the Agnus Dei. It rather fades out without offering much of a consolatory nature Ė probably reflecting Schubertís own unorthodox and wavering faith.

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor live up to their reputation as consummate professionals. Although the recording is live, you would scarcely know it from any audience noise, although the distanced orchestra mentioned above and a lack of definition in the sound might tip you off. I donít think I will much listen to the earlier Mass, but the later work is a gem.

Ralph Moore

The later Mass is a gem.