Jan van GILSE (1881-1944) Eine Lebensmesse (A Life's Mass) (1903-04)
Heidi Melton (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Roman Sadnik (tenor); Vladimir Baykov (bass) Groot Omroepkoor Radio Filharmonisch Orkest/Markus Stenz
rec. live, 31 May 2013, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn, De Vrijdag van Vredenburg. DDD CPO 777 924-2 [55:27]
This generously proportioned humanist or anti-religious mass is laid out for a quartet of singers, two choirs and orchestra. A prelude running to 12 minutes precedes two vocal/orchestral parts each in the region of twenty minutes. The words are by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) whose poetry was also set by Marx, Korngold, Mahler, Sibelius, Strauss and Reger.
This work is very much of its time. Van Gilse does not go after brilliance of sound. Instead there is something close to a protestant sturdiness that is eager yet earnest.
The Prelude - Sehr langsam starts stern, even severe, but soon the gloom lifts into an auburn-toned serenity. Along the way there are Brahmsian (Ein Deutsches Requiem) accents and the sort of concentrated density of expression found in the Franck Symphony. There's also a stormily eloquent oratory of a type associated with Elgar's Prelude to The Kingdom. The Prelude ends in a grand Brucknerian gallop - something that recurs at the end of Part II.
The second of three parts adds the choir to the orchestra. The style varies and becomes more animated without completely sacrificing the lofty tone which remains a strong presence. There are some Mahlerian moments and occasionally the subdued light admits of solo textures such as the Straussian solo violin at 5:00 (tr. 2) just before The Maiden's Song. The Chorus of the Fathers amounts to a symphonic march with sturdy unison singing and much dancing and fanfaring brass. The orchestral writing at times references the turbulence and triumphalism of Mahler's First Symphony. The lighter-toned Chorus of the Mothers has an angelic patina although as with the rest of the work this is not a religious piece. Its implicit rejection of religion and hymning of natural passions place it more closely with another Mass of Life - that by Delius.
The final part is distinguished, amongst other things, by touching singing from the soprano. The tenor sounds under stress at one or two points. The baritone is a stirring presence. Franz Schmidt might also have been influenced by this Mass in his Book of the Seven Seals - a much later work. The score rises to exalted ecstatic heights (for example at 19:23) with the choir projecting a warmly haloed sound. This is a concert performance complete with applause at the end of Part III. The humanist agenda does not preclude Dehmel and Van Gilse referring to the 'quiet Christmas angel'.
The Lebensmesse achieved celebrity at the 1912 Netherlands Music Festival with critics citing Strauss and Wagner as influences and praising van Gilse's orchestration as masterful. While this is the work's premiere recording it is not the first time it has been performed in 'modern times'. It was given in 1975 by the Amsterdam Philharmonisch Orkest conducted by Anton Kersjes, who also performed the recently recorded Bernard van Dieren Chinese Symphony in the early 1980s.
The booklet is in German and English in which languages the full text of Dehmel's sung poetry is given.
I hope that CPO will look in Flemish directions for other revivals. They have done so much already but I am sure that the world would welcome a cycle of the symphonies of Arthur Meulemans (1884-1966).
As for this secular Mass by Van Gilse what we have is a sombre earnestly eloquent mass of life: brooding, steely and stern.