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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1867/68, 1881, rev. 1890/93) [60:21]
Psalm 146 in A major, WAB 37 (c. 1858/60) [30:03]
Ania Vegry (soprano), Franziska Gottwald (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Timo Riihonen (bass)
Philharmonischer Chor München
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live 6 September 2015 Abteikirche, Ebrach, Germany
Sketches of Themes for improvisation (Bad Ischl, 1890)
completed as ‘Festmusik’ by Erwin Horn - Shorter version (1990s) [8:35]
Andante in D minor, WAB 130 (1843-1846) [1:49]
Nachspiel in D minor, WAB 126 (1843-1846) [4:07]
Prelude and Fugue in C minor, WAB 131 (1847) [5:54]
Fugue in D minor, WAB 125 (1861) [3:58]
Perger Präludium in C major, WAB 129 (1884) [2:06]
Gerd Schaller (organ)
rec. Eisenbarth Organ, Abteikirche, Ebrach, Germany, September 2015
PROFIL PH16034 [2 CDs: 60:21 + 56:48]

Having performed and recorded the complete cycle of Bruckner’s eleven symphonies with the Philharmonie Festiva for Profil, with this new release Schaller has turned his attention to the Austrian composer’s sacred choral works plus a selection of organ works played by Schaller himself.

My passion for Bruckner’s sacred choral works was reinvigorated by reporting from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2012 during a performance of the Mass No. 2 in E minor conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann at the Annenkirche, Dresden (review). Since that performance given in such a splendid ecclesiastical setting, the view that the Bruckner mass settings are masterworks of the repertoire has been reinforced and when sympathetic performers are involved can convey a absorbing spiritual quality.

In the 25th year of Ebracher Musiksommer 2015 at a live concert on 6 September at Abteikirche, Schaller performed Psalm 146 in A major and Mass No. 3 in F minor which was recorded by Bayericher Rundfunk. Schaller’s hand-picked Philharmonie Festiva was joined by four soloists and the Philharmonischer Chor München.

Thought to have been commenced at St. Florian, the Psalm 146 in A major to a German text was probably completed in Linz around the period 1858/60 when Bruckner was in his mid 30s. Lasting here 30 minutes, Psalm 146 is scored for four soloists, four part mixed chorus and large orchestra; a more substantial work than his earlier settings of Psalms 22 and 36 written around 1852. It is not known why Bruckner wrote the setting or whether it was performed in his lifetime. In the accompanying booklet notes Dr. Rainer Boss describes the A major score as “really a psalm-cantata” Published as recently as 1996 in an edition by Paul Hawkshaw this is a most attractive score, rarely performed and recorded, that reminded me strongly of the sacred works of Mendelssohn. Schaller has chosen his quartet of soloists well: Ania Vegry (soprano), Franziska Gottwald (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor) and Timo Riihonen (bass). I relished every section, especially the opening movement Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn with the Philharmonischer Chor München sounding expressive, wonderfully tender when appropriate and completely satisfying. There is no denying the fine performance by soprano soloist Ania Vegry, although her bright voice requires additional focus for my taste. In movement 3 Groß ist unser Herr the vitality of the chorus feels agreeably rousing, demonstrating the high quality singing, exalting the power of God and his immeasurable wisdom. My particular highlight of the psalm setting is the fourth movement 4 (arioso) with chorus Der Herr nimmt auf die Sanften lauding how the Lord raises up the meek and defeats the wicked. Here the interplay between the soloists is exquisite, with contralto Franziska Gottwald sounding both lovely and suitably pious.

The Mass No. 3 in F minor was composed during a particularly troubled time in Bruckner’s life, both emotionally and professionally. In 1867, aged 43 at the time of completing the six part score, Bruckner had recently suffered a breakdown culminating in a stay in a sanatorium. In addition he had been spurned twice in marriage proposals, been unsuccessful in two significant job applications and rocked by the death of his teacher Simon Sechter. Bruckner’s thanksgiving to God for his restoration to health was his completion of the F minor score in 1868; he later undertook several revisions to the score, which he completed in 1893. It is thought that the première of the work was not given for 4 years after its completion due to its marked performing difficulty.

In this masterly score the enthusiastic Schaller directs confidently, managing the singing of lofty veneration from the Philharmonischer Chor München. Striking is its unity and focused tone combining here to significant effect. With judiciously paced tempi Schaller assuredly obtains both dramatic and deeply felt playing from his impeccable Philharmonie Festiva, conveying a sense of freshness and spontaneity. Full marks to Schaller’s soloists who deserve praise such is the quality of their performance and their reverential response to the Latin words. Especially impressive is the second movement, the Gloria with the chorus ringing out of the words Gloria in excelsis Deo both buoyant and heartening. In the massive Credo all the forces keep their focus remarkably well and the weighty passages sound elevated in spiritual feeling. Here tenor Clemens Bieber is in steady, vivid voice and the tone of bass Timo Riihonen has an oak-like strength. For me a particular highlight is the powerful and moving Bededictus, with singing of sublime emotion extolling the mercy and righteousness of the Lord, together with an undertow of melancholy.

Clearly well prepared, the Philharmonischer Chor München display a consistent unity throughout, often glowing and frequently with passages of affecting sacred veneration. One senses Schaller’s deep concentration drawing engaging and tautly committed playing from the impressive Philharmonie Festiva. However in the F minor Mass Schaller’s recording doesn’t quite displace the dramatic yet reverential classic the 1962 Herkulessaal, Munich account that Eugen Jochum recorded with soloists Maria Stader (soprano), Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Claudia Hellmann (contralto) and Kim Borg (bass), and Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Deutsche Grammophon.

In addition Schaller has here recorded a recital of six Bruckner organ works on the Eisenbarth Organ, Abbey Church, Ebrach. Originally built in 1742 the organ in the great nave was reconstructed in 1984 and consists of 57 registers and 4 manuals with pedals. These are fascinating works that display Bruckner’s prowess at writing for an instrument at which he excelled.

Recorded live at Abteikirche Ebrach, the sound engineers have done a fine job overall in what I’m sure are very challenging acoustics. Not surprisingly the orchestral balance is not consistently ideal. Bass Riihonen is slightly recessed in the balance and in the most extreme fortissimo passages the sound picture does begin to blur slightly. The audience applause has been taken out. In the booklet there is an English translation of a helpful essay by Dr. Rainer Boss. German and Latin texts are provided in the booklet but I’m disappointed there are no translations in English.

At the forthcoming Ebracher Musiksommer 2016 Schaller is to record a completed version of the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 from the Abteikirche that is intended for autumn release on Profil. It seems the label has plans to record other Bruckner sacred choral works with Schaller.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Proffitt (Recording of the Month) ~ Ralph Moore



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