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Johann von HERBECK (1831-1877)
Grosse Messe in E minor for chorus, organ and orchestra
Philharmonischer Chor München
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. 2014, Regentenbau Bad Kissingen (Max-Littmann-Saal), Bayerischer Rundfunk – Studio Franken. DDD
PROFIL PH15003 [47:33]

The first conductor of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”, champion of Bruckner and Wagner and admired by Berlioz as a conductor, Austrian musician Johann Ritter von Herbeck was also a composer who fitted a great deal into an energetic life. That life was prematurely curtailed by pneumonia when he was only forty-five years old.

Despite the success of the first performance of his “Great Mass” in 1866, it was soon forgotten until its recent discovery by conductor Gerd Schaller. The highly influential Viennese critic Hanslick called it “the most outstanding work in the field of sacred music since Schubert.” Remember, however, that Hanslick was the nemesis of both Wagner and Bruckner, unable to recognise the beauty of their music and intolerant of anything progressive. It is thus scarcely any surprise that he hailed this work, as it is decidedly retrogressive and conservative in its affect. It models itself upon Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and is often reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s liturgical style without evincing much of the memorability of those composers’ melodies.

It is clearly an expertly crafted work, with lots of grand gestures and sudden outbursts of complex Romantic harmony but to my ears is also oddly sterile and formulaic, lacking in both momentum and exhilaration.

The opening “Kyrie” is grand, stately and majestic, the unaccompanied basses intoning the prayer until joined by the other vocal lines. This builds to a sombre and impassioned climax before reverting to the murmured supplication of the opening.

The “Gloria” is decidedly grand in utterance but seems oddly stilted and spasmodic in its development without much over-riding sense of direction. The choir do what they can to lend the “et resurrexit” impact but it is rather uneventful. An expert fugue is given considerable clarity by the highly able choir. It is nonetheless the rather diffuse nature of the music, given to gestures without being especially memorable, which hampers its impact. The most successful movement is surely the stately, concluding "Agnus Dei", which moves slowly, in blocks of lovely eight-part harmony, towards a tranquil and consolatory conclusion.

The orchestra is excellent, being the same that Schaller employed for his celebrated live festival recordings of the complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies (see reviews of Symphony 6 ~ Symphonies 4, 7 & 9 ~ Symphony 8), not to mention his recording of the Suppé Requiem. It is drawn from Munich’s finest orchestras. The choir is the regular partner of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and has a pedigree going back to 1895.

The sound is first rate: rich and deep but permitting individual lines to emerge clearly.

Goodness knows who at Profil thought the pink alien lady would make a cover image suitable for a recording of a mid-nineteenth century liturgical work.

Ralph Moore