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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Te Deum in C major WAB 45 (1881-1884) [25:07]
Psalm 150, WAB 38 (1892) [9:33]
Mass No. 2 in E minor, WAB 27 (1866/1896) [42:20]
Pamela Coburn (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Christian Elsner (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. 1996, Beethovensaal, Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Liederhalle; Stadthalle, Sindelfingen, Germany
Reviewed as a 16-bit lossless download from Qobuz
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (Latin, German, English)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 98.054 [77:00]

For some listeners Anton Bruckner’s faith, like that of Olivier Messiaen, prevents them from engaging with either’s oeuvre. Then there’s the perennial problem of their prolixity, perceived or otherwise. That said, even Bruckner devotees will admit to blind spots. I’ve heard the Te Deum called the Tedium, and that by someone who’s sung in numerous performances of the piece. Strangely enough it was the work that attracted me to Bruckner in the first place. The recordings in question were Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony on LP and Herbert von Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker on a moodily filmed VHS tape (both DG).

Not the most persuasive performance, I admit, but then came Matthew Best and his Corydon Singers on Hyperion. I was captivated by that one for a while, but soon afterwards I came across Bernard Haitink’s Vienna recording for Philips. With a splendid quartet - Robert Holl, Vinson Cole, Susanne Mentzer and Karita Mattila – and a glorious recording, that version eclipsed all others. Admittedly Eugen Jochum’s classic DG account comes close in terms of amplitude and ecstasy, but I do find the 1960s sound somewhat fatiguing.

Jochum’s Psalm 150 and the Mass No. 2 – the latter on a fine Originals twofer – are rather bright as well; still, both performances are suffused with an authority that surely derives from an intimate knowledge of these scores. Indeed, Bruckner is at his most convincing and coherent when approached with well-founded confidence; that's no guard against lurking longueurs, but it certainly helps. So, here are my comparative versions for this review; Haitink for the Te Deum and Jochum for Psalm 150 and the Mass No. 2. I shall also touch on Best’s recordings of all three works.

Helmuth Rilling is a distinguished choral conductor, so there’s no doubting his credentials here. True, his discography is weighted towards the baroque, but look closely and you’ll see Berio, Dalbavie and Gubaidulina in there as well. I last encountered Rilling in a very decent recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. These Bruckner recordings aren’t new, though. All three works are included in a nifty box from Brilliant; the Te Deum is also part of Helmuth Rilling: Personal Selection (Hänssler CD 98.008), Psalm 150 can be found in Romantic Choral Music (Hänssler CD 98.460) and the Mass No. 2 is buried deep in the 20-disc Bruckner: The Collection (Profil 13007).

Bruckner began work on the Te Deum in 1881 and completed it in 1884; that makes it roughly concurrent with his Sixth and Seventh symphonies. For chorus, soloists, orchestra and organ ad libitum it’s a surprisingly compact piece – it lasts around 25 minutes – that’s anything but tedious. In Rilling’s hands the hyper-intense Te Deum laudamus may lack the purifying heat of Jochum's and Haitink’s versions, but that’s by no means a criticism. It’s a spacious reading – scrupulous even - with a believable balance between orchestra and soloists; the latter are pretty good, both individually and as a team. and the Stuttgart choir sing with clarity and a real sense of devotion.

Indeed, as the performance progressed I became acutely aware of its deeply spiritual character. That’s particularly true of the Te ergo quaesumus, in which the soloists are hushed but not over-reverential. Theirs is a delicate but necessary inwardness, and Rilling calibrates his accompaniment accordingly. Haitink, Jochum and Best – the latter with a very robust organ part – are all built on more generous lines, and that makes for extremely visceral performances.

By contrast Rilling’s Te Deum seems more austere, especially in its quieter moments. His soloists continue to impress, but it’s tenor Christian Elsner who sings with the purest of tone and the loveliest of lines. I mentioned the word ‘scrupulous’ earlier, but it’s not meant in a derogatory sense; actually, such care gives rise to a sensitively shaped, beautifully integrated performance. In short, this is the Te Deum one seldom hears, the inner Bruckner given voice in a most eloquent and affecting way.

Rilling may lack some vividness at the outset, but the start of the Aeterna fac has all the boldness one could wish. Again I was struck by the conductor’s even-handed approach to this score; nothing is forced or fiddled, it flowers so naturally. The recording, similarly judicious, is firm in the bass and clean in the treble. No, Hänssler can’t match Philips’ heaven-storming sonics for Haitink, nor can Hyperion for Best, but then Rilling’s Te Deum is a less overt, more personal affair. So much so that the start of the Salvum fac is like eavesdropping on private thoughts and prayers.

Something else that makes this recording stand out is the hear-through quality of the orchestral playing. One registers far more detail and nuance than usual, and then marvels at the simple, artless beauty of Bruckner’s writing. Rilling doesn’t rush his fences in the finale, where the emboldened soloists add to the growing sense of anticipation. One can really hear Rilling’s baroque skills at work in the buoyant, clearly delineated choral contributions; the women in particular are splendid, their combined voices seeming to batter at the very gates of heaven. As for those final invocations they’re hurled into the empyrean with a fierce hope and certainty that’s utterly overwhelming.

Goodness, I’ve not been so comprehensively unravelled by the Te Deum in a long while. This is an astonishing performance in every respect, all the more so because it's built on core musical values. That doesn’t mean there’s no drama – far from it – just that the work is laid out in a way that reveals all its virtues. By comparison Haitink and Jochum now seem a little too theatrical at times. I still have a soft spot for Best's Te Deum though; it’s not always tidy and the soloists are variable, but it's played and sung with a generosity and gusto that’s hard to resist. In many ways Rilling’s Te Deum is a valuable corrective, rather like this liberating account of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass that I reviewed recently.

Bruckner’s setting of Psalm 150 was a festival cantata commissioned for the opening of a grand musical expo in Vienna in 1892. Unfortunately the piece was not ready in time, so it was scheduled for the closing ceremony instead. Neither that nor a subsequent performance came to pass, and the work was finally premiered at the inaugural concert of the Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde on 13 November 1892.

Psalm 150 – which lasts around nine minutes - opens with high-lying Hallelujahs and pulsing timps. Rilling seems even more incisive here than he is in the Te Deum; the recording is leaner and brighter too. In fact I found the treble somewhat edgy, especially in the choral outbursts. Soprano Pamela Coburn is just fine though, and Rilling brings admirable clarity to the performance. As for the crowning climax – complete with stratospheric sopranos – it’s simply hair-raising. Jochum’s reading is also strong, if somewhat foursquare at times, with less of the lift that Rilling brings to the piece.

So, a little disappointing after that Te Deum, but then just about anything else would be. Listeners may wish to try the Best recording; it’s quite tubby – listen to the rude brass – but it’s a welcome antidote to all that German seriousness. Leslie Wright liked it so much he described it as ‘stunning and uplifting’ (review). It’s a long time since I heard Barenboim’s account of the piece on DG, but I have positive memories of the performance. It’s been reissued – along with his Bruckner Ninth – on an Eloquence CD that Tony Duggan reviewed back in 2000.

At around 42 minutes the Mass No. 2 is by far the longest item here. It’s also the one that has the most devotional character, the chorus filling those votive spaces with their glorious tones. Commissioned for the dedication of a new cathedral it’s scored for mixed choir and wind band, the latter of which underlines and punctuates the radiant choral parts. It’s a slow-wending work, and Rilling accesses its spiritual centre more effectively than most. As for the brass they have a splendid ring in the Gloria and the Credo, both of which are prefaced with the usual priestly intonations (very distant in the Best recording).

This Mass setting isn't as tightly focused as either the Te Deum or Psalm 150 but it does have vigour and variety, especially in the keenly felt rhythms and bright sonorities of the Credo. Once again there’s a lucency to the performance – helped in part by a clear separation of voices – that probably owes much to Rilling’s experience with Bach. The start of the Sanctus falls like soft rain – this really is an exceptional choir, at the peak of their powers – while the Benedictus and Agnus Dei are no less nourishing. The orchestral skeins, beautifully balanced and well caught, bring a rubied glow to the proceedings.

After that it’s difficult to think of comparisons. Predictably perhaps Jochum’s account of the Mass shows its age in terms of performing style and sonics; still, he’s a solid, safe Brucknerian who can’t be overlooked. For more modern alternatives go for Best; some might argue that his treble sound is just too English for this repertoire, but in mitigation he does have the most piquant brass of all. Failing that try Valeri Polyansky on Chandos (review).

I’ve no idea why these Rilling performances have been recycled so often, but I’m pleased to have them in a single reissue such as this. Given its age and history I’m surprised to see the CD listed on Amazon UK at £12.99, but then I've long given up trying to fathom their pricing policies. The download is pitched at £7.99 on Qobuz, which seems reasonable; it costs closer to £9 on eClassical. Good basic notes with sung texts and translations complete the package.

A stand-out Te Deum; the partnering works are very well prepared and performed, too.

Dan Morgan
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