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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Mass No.3 in F minor (1867-1893)
Lenneke Ruiten (soprano)
Iris Vermillion (mezzo)
Shawn Mathey (tenor)
Franz Josef Selig (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Marek Janowski
rec. June 2012, Victoria Hall, Geneva
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186 501 [62 :13]

The taste for Bruckner’s symphonies is by and large considerably more widespread and easier to acquire than for his Masses, which do not attract the same number of concert performances or recordings. Indeed, a preference for the masses over the symphonies might by some be accounted eccentric; nonetheless, there are over sixty recordings in the discography of this, the biggest and greatest of Bruckner’s Mass settings. Those generally accounted most successful and popular are by Jochum, Barenboim and - for variety and individuality - Celibidache. It is with these three recordings that this new release is compared. I have also heard Helmuth Rilling’s 1992 account, but cannot in all honesty consider it a worthy contender as it is so dull, small-scale and poorly sung. 

Although the Mass was not devised primarily for concert performance, there is an emphasis upon musical rather than liturgical considerations with several major consequences: the opening lines of the “Gloria” and “Credo” are set to music sung by the whole choir rather than being intoned by the tenor in the manner of a priest; the role of the soloists is more prominent; and, finally, the musical idiom in general is more symphonic - although the thematic material is still rooted in Gregorian chant. Both the “Gloria” and the “Credo” conclude with double fugues, their intricacy reflecting Bruckner’s confidence in that form as he neared the end of his six years’ correspondence course in harmony and counterpoint with Simon Sechter. Indeed, the Mass was begun shortly after news reached Bruckner of Sechter’s death in September 1867 but also marked Bruckner’s return to health following his extended stay in the sanatorium at Bad Kreuzen, before his permanent move to Vienna.
 
In this recording, Janowski uses Paul Hawkshaw’s 2005 edition of the 1893 revision and in common with most conductors omits both the “vi-de” bars 170-179 in the “Gloria” and the optional organ. His tempi are moderate and thus, at 61:35, the duration of the performance lies somewhere in between the extremes of Jochum (57:24) and Celibidache (76:16), obviously somewhat nearer to the sprightlier than the monumental - although there are recordings by such as Herreweghe which take as little as 52 minutes.
 
I cannot say that I find much which is remarkable or arresting about Janowski’s interpretation, insofar as it is generally moderate and unhurried, in well-balanced sound with adequate soloists. At no point do I find the vertical sense of mystery and transcendence which I am sure Bruckner intended and which, in the right hands such as those of Barenboim and Celibidache, emerges so strikingly.
 
This is glorious, large-scale music and right from the start of the “Kyrie”, both those conductors find a nobility in the phrasing of the descending four-note figure in fourths passed from the strings to the choir to the bass and finally the soprano soloists. The singers in both recordings are superior to Janowski’s rather acidic soprano; Margaret Price, Heather Harper and also Maria Stader for Jochum all soar angelically, and there is a special, imposing distinction of timbre to the voices of basses Marius Rinztler and Kim Borg which the rather lumpen Franz Josef Selig cannot match.
 
The hallmark of Janowski’s style is essentially innocuous placidity; even Jochum’s nervous, lively sensibility of the same kind which characterises his accounts of Bruckner’s symphonies is a distinct asset in comparison with Janowski’s steadiness. A typically effective Jochum touch is the accelerando seven minutes into the “Kyrie”; he finds a momentum here which eludes Janowski, although the latter builds to an impressive climax and is greatly served by impeccable recorded sound, whereas Celibidache’s live recording is good but plagued by coughs. Jochum’s elderly DG version has been poorly re-mastered, suffering from hiss, a distant choir and a generally muddy and muffled acoustic. Celibidache’s tempi should drag but don’t, owing to his mastery of the long line and nuanced control of dynamics; what he and Barenboim do with the “Gloria” makes Janowski sound almost turgid.
 
The clarity of the recorded sound given to Janowski certainly constitutes one of the greatest attractions of this new disc so it is a pity that his flutes are recorded too prominently throughout, especially in the “Sanctus”. Otherwise, Celibidache conjures an ethereal quality here, his flutes spiralling upward, while Barenboim is warmer and impassioned; Janowski simply plays it straight.
 
The “Benedictus” is among the most beautiful, Romantic and indeed Mahlerian of Bruckner’s conceits; just as we may with some certainty hear a link between the solo violin in the “Kyrie” and the “Benedictus” of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis”, there is an unmistakable connection between the second melody, introduced by the bass soloist and the Adagio of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony - and perhaps the final movement of his Third, too. It is in this movement that we most clearly hear the relative inadequacy of Janowski’s soloists when the mezzo-soprano enters unsteadily, the soprano responds shrilly, the bass wobbles, the tenor bleats and all four singers fail to integrate their tone homogeneously. The quartets for Jochum, Barenboim and Celibidache are markedly superior, although the playing and singing of Janowski’s Rundfunkchor and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande are distinctly impressive.
 
The final movement, the “Agnus Dei”, carries over the mood of the “Benedictus”. The opening descending octave phrases require affectionate moulding and delicately shaded dynamics of the kind Janowski eschews; similarly he allows the semi-quavers three and a half minutes in to plod and misses the effect of grandeur Bruckner intended. However, the final tonic major two bar phrase for the oboe over pianissimo strings and a grumbling kettledrum is very effectively managed.
 
Ultimately, other conductors have found more inspiration in their working out of Bruckner’s classical forms and more variety in their phrasing of his frequent quadruple rhythms. For me, Janowski’s more cautious, non-interventionist approach fails to generate the requisite fervour and intensity this music demands.  

Ralph Moore 

See also review by Michael Cookson