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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Männerchöre - Vol. 2
see track/performance details below review
rec. in performance, Alter Dorn, Linz, September 2012
GRAMOLA 98997 [49:37]

This programme of secular choral music by Anton Bruckner may catch you off-guard: one almost reflexively associates this devoutly Catholic composer with sacred music. The motets and Masses belong in that category but the symphonies, for all their mystical overtones, are, after all, secular works, the composer's dedication of his Ninth Symphony, "dem lieben Gott" ("to the beloved God") notwithstanding.
There are more similarities between Bruckner's orchestral and choral writing than you might expect. The male-voice ensemble, allowing for close-position harmonies supported by a low bass line, is a natural medium for the kind of satisfying, filled-out sonorities characteristic of the composer's symphonic tuttis. The part-writing is logical and grateful. Even within this comparatively restricted tonal framework, the composer finds ways to bring one of his characteristic compositional devices, the simulation of organ registrations, into play. Now and then, he'll bunch the parts more closely in a higher range, anchoring the harmonies in baritone, rather than bass, territory, thus effectively "changing registers". In Träumen und Wachen, he plays the tenors against the basses in a way to emphasize their contrasting timbres, rather than blending them. Similarly, Bruckner will highlight a solo voice or solo ensemble against a wordless or humming chorus, suggesting a solo organ stop highlighted against a quieter background. These devices produce the variety without which such a programme could prove tiresome.
For my taste, the pieces relating most strongly to the existing Germanic traditions make the best effect: Der Lehrerstand, with a square, Freischütz-ish heartiness; and Des Dankes Wort sei mir vergönnt, reminiscent of a Schubert solo-and-chorus Lied. In fact, all the items are interesting and well-wrought, even those few - forthright "mottos" composed for choral societies, and celebratory pieces - that are less than a minute long. The choruses Lasst Jubeltöne laut erklingen and Der deutsche Gesang reinforce the men with brass; the three-movement Cantata for Prelate Friedrich Mayer brings in what sounds like most of a full orchestra, and, in the last of its three movements, a women's chorus as well.
The performances are good, especially for having been recorded in performance. The quick, madrigalesque writing of Vaterländisches Weinleid - the closest this collection comes to a cheerful "standard" chorus - proves too quick for the men's chorus of the 2012 Bruckner Festival: the rapidly shifting chords never quite fall into place. Adding insult to injury, the programme follows this with Um Mitternacht, in the parallel minor. Otherwise, the festival singers' tuning is excellent, even where the programme order conspires to trip them up, as when Des Höchsten Preis and Das Lied vom deutschen Vaterland, pitched a semitone apart, follow one after the other. The choral tone is rich: the "mottos" receive especially full-throated performances. In the highest phrases of the background choruses, a single tenor voice - is it always the same one? - sometimes pulls focus disconcertingly, but the distractions are brief.
The recording is resonant, in a good way. The brief but informative programme notes, some of which apparently contradict previous datings of some of the pieces. Since I'm not a Bruckner scholar, my headnote follows the booklet wherever a discrepancy exists. The billing of the artists is a muddle, however. It's not indicated which of the two conductors directs which pieces; nor did I hear the piano, ostensibly played by Thomas Kerbl, anywhere in the programme. Five male soloists are credited, but we're not told who sings where; meanwhile, the clear, straight-toned soprano soloist in the last movement of the cantata isn't billed at all.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Track listing & performance details
Ständchen, WAB 84 (1846?) [2:28]
An dem Feste, WAB 59 (1843) [2:18]
Der Lehrerstand, WAB 77 (1847?) [4:15]
Wir alle, jung und alt, WAB 148/2 (1869) [0:30]
Träumen und Wachen, WAB 87 (1890/92) [5:07]
Vaterländisches Weinlied, WAB 91 (1866) [1:07]
Um Mitternacht (2nd setting), WAB 90 (1886) [5:41]
Freier Sinn und froher Mut, WAB 147 (1874) [0:21]
Des Dankes Wort sei mir vergönnt, WAB 62 (1845-55?) [5:26]
Volkslied, WAB 94 (1882) [0:46]
Zur Vermählungsfeier, WAB 54 (1878) [4:09]
Lasst Jubeltöne laut erklingen, WAB 76 (1854) [3:26]
Des Höchstein Preis, WAB 95/2 (1850?) [0:30]
Das Lied vom deutschen Vaterland, WAB 78 (1845?) [1:05]
Der deutsche Gesang (Das deutsche Lied), WAB 63 (1892) [3:01]
Cantata for Prelate Friedrich Meyer, WAB 60 [7:55]*
Michael Nowak, Matthäus Schmidlechner, Martin Kiener (tenors); Markus Schulz, Walter Johannes Fischer (basses); Philipp Sonntag (organ)
*Studentinnen der Lied/Oratorienklasse der Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität des Landes Oberösterreich
Männerchor Bruckner 12, Ensemble Linz/Thomas Kerbl (piano), Christian Schmidbauer