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Matthias GRÜNERT (b. 1973)
Agnus Dei [2.27]
Pater Noster [6.10]
Percy FLETCHER (1879-1932)
Festival Offertorium [6.59]
Fountain Reverie [5.26]
Festival Toccata [7.34]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Mass for Double Choir (1922/1926) [26.06]
Dresden Frauenkirche Chamber Choir/Matthias Grünert
Matthias Grünert (organ)
rec. 28-30 April 2015, Frauenkirche, Dresden
sung texts in Latin, German and English provided
RONDEAU ROP6111 [54.42]

An evocative twilit photograph of the Dresden Frauenkirche adorns the cover of this CD. The church was built in the seventeenth century but not much was left standing after the aerial bombardment of the city in 1945. The ruins remained as a kind of war memorial for some forty-five years, before the decision was taken to reconstruct. Astonishingly, individual stones from the ruins had been measured and catalogued, and these were used, as far as possible, in the reconstruction of the edifice.

As well as church services, the Frauenkirche now serves as an important cultural, and in particular, musical centre. Matthias Grünert is the church’s formidable organist and choirmaster, and this disc also showcases his work as a composer. The programme opens with two of his short, a cappella choral works. Agnus Dei is tonal and sung in German. It is extremely attractive and would be a worthy addition to any competent church choir’s repertoire. The setting of The Lord’s Prayer, sung in Latin, is more ambitious. Rather daringly it treats the prayer as a drama, so there is a fair amount of contrast within the work’s six-minute duration. The musical language is again tonal, but more wide-ranging than in the shorter work, and divisions within the choir make it a more challenging prospect for the performers. On the strength of these two pieces, each as convincing in its own way as the other, Matthias Grünert is a real composer.

Percy Eastman Fletcher, born in Derby, was a composer of light music and music for the theatre who also produced a number of organ works as well as sacred choral pieces (see Philip Scowcroft’s MusicWeb International article). Grünert plays three of his organ works here. Festival Offertorium is breezy and lively: its title suits it well. An impressive peroration uses its themes in longer note values, a good idea but maybe a little contrived. Fountain Reverie is a pictorial piece that allows the composer a greater range of texture and melodic and harmonic freedom, and the player a greater range of colour. Like all three pieces, it is resolutely tonal. The most interesting of the three, in my view, is the Festival Toccata. Indeed, if the organist struck up with this at the end of the service I’d be tempted to stay in my seat and listen. Form seems not to have been Fletcher’s strong point – endings neither – and there are a few fairly predictable progressions in there too. Even so, in this piece, at least, a real musical mind seems to be at work, a reflection I find myself making for the second time in this review. I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of these works; though not a great follower of organ music, I’ll certainly be wanting to return to them in the future.

Matthias Grünert plays all three pieces with exceptional skill, his nimble fingers particularly impressive in the second and third pieces. The composer is responsible for the clear textures, but Grünert’s registration choices certainly help. The recording is superbly immediate whilst at the same time giving a lovely feel of the building.

Frank Martin composed most of his a cappella Mass for Double Choir in 1922, adding the Agnus Dei some four years later. Seeing the work as something between God and himself, he decided to withhold it; its first performance took place only in 1963. It is an early piece, in relatively traditional language but is no pushover for the choir. I’ll plant my feet firmly on the ground and declare that it is one of the supreme masterpieces of the choral repertoire. The Chamber Choir of the Dresden Frauenkirche numbers about thirty-five singers. They perform the Martin, as they also do their conductor’s two pieces, with exquisite purity and beauty of tone, splendid blend, unanimity of attack and impeccable tuning. Whether you will respond favourably to this performance will depend on how you feel about the conductor’s view of the work. Tempo indications are marked in French throughout the score, except in the Agnus Dei, where the composer reverts to Italian. There is not a single metronome mark, so the conductor relies on intuition to decide exactly what the composer wanted; for example, when he wrote, at the beginning of the Gloria, “calme, sans trainer” (“calm, without dragging”). The opening phrase of the Gloria in this performance certainly does not drag, but it is urgent rather than calm. In the sublime Credo, Et resurrexit is very fast indeed – admittedly marked “vite” (“fast” or “quick”) – whereas the following Et in spiritum sanctum, marked “modéré et souple”, is very slow indeed, taking away much of the excitement from the rest of the movement. In the Agnus Dei, Martin separates the two choirs musically, the one singing a slow-moving, chordal accompaniment under a unison melody in the other. This is beautifully sung, and the difficult balance between the two choirs is perfectly judged but as the music rises to its climax the emotional content of the music is almost unbearably intense, and its very restraint only adds to this. In this performance the moment passes for distressingly little, as do the deeply moving final bars, as powerful a prayer of peace as you will encounter anywhere in music. The heart must not be on the sleeve when performing Frank Martin’s music; but, conversely, simply respecting what is in the score should allow for a more expressive performance than this one.

In 1997 the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under James O’Donnell recorded this work for Hyperion, a disc that won a Gramophone Award. The pain in the tenors’ voices as they announce the crucifixion is heart-rending, and more than the present choir is able, or wants to, convey. Those who don’t care for children’s voices in the soprano line are missing out, but will probably prefer the more mellifluous performance from the RIAS-Kammerchor and Daniel Reuss on Harmonia Mundi. Convinced Martin admirers should try to seek out a flawed but extraordinarily intense live performance from the BBC Singers and John Poole, once available on a BBC Radio Classics CD and surely a candidate for wider availability.

William Hedley


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