Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Mass No. 5 in A flat major, D.678 Missa Solemnis (1819-22, rev. 1825/26) [40:01]
Magnificat in C major, D.486 (c. 1815/16) [8:50]
Trine Wilsberg Lund (soprano), Bettina Ranch (alto), Min Woo Lim (tenor), Dominik Königer (bass)
Immortal Bach Ensemble,
Leipziger Kammerorchester/Morten Schuldt-Jensen
rec. 12-13 August 2009, Paul-Gerhardtkirche, Leipzig, Germany
NAXOS 8.572114 [48:51]
Schubert wrote a substantial quantity of sacred choral music, including six numbered masses which are rarely played today. Overshadowed by the popularity of works such as hisUnfinished, theGreat C major, his Lieder, chamber music and solo piano works this inexplicably remains one of his most overlooked genres.
The centrepiece here is the Mass No. 5 for four soloists, choir and orchestra. It’s one of Schubert’s finest sacred choral works. Schubert commenced the score in 1819 working on it over a productive three year period that includes approximately the completion of the Trout Quintet and the composition of the Unfinished. The composer later revised the score considerably over the winter of 1825/26 using it in support of an unsuccessful application for deputy Kapellmeister to the Emperor at the Imperial Court Chapel. Schubert liked to refer to the Mass as his ‘Missa Solemnis’. It was for Schubert a labour of love on which he “spent more time, and more trouble, than over any other single work.” (The Master Musicians: Schubert by John Reed, J.M. Dent, London, 1987 pg.194)
The appealing Kyrie eleison is a generally tender movement with an intense sense of reverence. There is glorious singing from the choir and the woodwind is accorded considerable prominence. In the Gratias agimus tibi I admired the reverential soft focus on the excellent soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund. The movement is variegated with passages of weight and intensity. Alto Bettina Ranch and tenor Min Woo Lim are expressive in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei with the striking woodwind allowed to shine.
The forward momentum in the Cum Sancto Spiritu ia impressive and contains an eloquent part for the choir.Opened by a brass fanfare that is repeated the Credo in unum Deum is a movement with wide dynamics and searing melodies. The singing from the choir in the Et incarnatus est is gravely affecting with the Et resurrexit exuberant and briskly taken by Schuldt-Jensen. The brass-laden Confiteor has an intense outpouring for the choir. The Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus is predominantly dramatic but I was struck by the bucolic feel to the sprightly and very brief Osanna in excelsis.
The trio of soloists make a glorious impression in the Benedictus qui venit. I was delighted at the opening with the soprano and alto being joined the tenor accompanied by notable pizzicato strings. Featuring the quartet of soloists the mood of the Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi is serious and affecting, almost one of mystery. The final section of the Dona nobis pacem was uneventful with rather a quiet mood established.
The splendid Magnificat, D.486 is just one of several precious gems of modest duration to be found in Schubert’s substantial body of sacred choral music. Cast in three movements it is scored for four soloists, choir and orchestra. Schubert’s manuscript carries the date 1816 but it is contended that it may have been composed the previous year. The Magnificat is a canticle also known as the Song of the Virgin Mary using a text taken from the St Luke Gospel. The opening section is exuberant and celebratory. Schubert excels greatly with the serenity of the marvellous central movement Deposuit potentes de sede, an Andante. There’s impressive singing from the quartet especially from Lund the memorable soprano. The C major Magnificat closes with a jubilant Gloria Patri.
Throughout the disc outstanding Oslo-born soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund rejoices in an unforced tone that is ravishingly creamy and smooth, yet manages to remain faithfully devout. The Berliner alto Bettina Ranch has a rich warm timbre and is somewhat set back in the balance. A native of Seoul Min Woo Lim is a pleasing and direct tenor. In the bass part I would have preferred Heidelberg baritone Dominik Königer to have been placed slightly further forward. A bass would have been ideal in the part, however, the famous Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, also a baritone, would often sing the bass part.
Formerly called the GewandhausKammerchor Leipzig the Immortal Bach Ensemble were in impeccable voice throughout and can take many plaudits for their tone and unity. Founded in 1971 the Leipziger Kammerorchester under the direction of Morten Schuldt-Jensen has a clear transparent sound almost in the manner of a period-instrument ensemble. The chamber orchestra use modern instruments and provide the power as appropriate but never drown out the vocal forces. It is no surprise that the orchestra use aspects of period performance practice. The Leipzig woodwind and brass sections were stunning.
Turning to the presentation of the release it is maddening that the sung texts are not printed in the Naxos booklet. I know the traditional Catholic mass well but certainly cannot claim to know the Latin text and English translation by heart. We are told that texts are available at the Naxos website although I failed miserably to operate the printed link. Record companies seem to ignore the fact that not all potential purchasers are on-line. In addition if you can be bothered to print off the texts where do you store them? At forty-nine minutes the playing time is rather meagre and other sacred scores could easily have been accommodated.
What of the competition? A remarkable collection of Schubert’s Sacred Choral Works is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra for EMI. This outstandingly performed and recorded set of 35 Schubert scores was recorded in 1977 and 1979/83 at the Munich Herkulessaal and is contained in a 7 disc box set on EMI Classics 5 86011 2. Sawallisch’s impressive list of performers includes: Peter Schreier (tenor); Robert Tear (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Helen Donath (soprano); Lucia Popp (soprano) and Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo).
I am familiar with another selection of Schubert Choral Music that includes a single disc of sacred choral music as well as a disc each of secular choral music and famous works for male chorus. The sacred scores are split between two conductors: Dietrich Knothe directs the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchestra, Berlin, and Marcus Creed directs the Rias-Kammerchor, Berlin and the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin. Using several conductors, orchestras and choirs the set is on Phoenix Edition 408 (see review).
A fine single disc of Schubert secular choral music worth considering is on Capriccio SACD 71 050. The disc contains virtually the same programme with identical performances as the sacred choral music disc on the set from Phoenix Edition 408. As mentioned above the sacred scores are split between the two conductors Dietrich Knothe and Marcus Creed (see review).
Naxos and conductor Morten Schuldt-Jensen have released a stunningly performed recording. Closely recorded, the sound quality is clear yet some may be put off by the brightness in the forte passages. However if this disc is representative of Naxos’s Schubert sacred choral music series then it certainly is worth investigating.
Michael Cookson
Certainly worth investigating.