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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Grosse Messe in G minor, op. 37 (1923-26)
Simone Schneider (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Christian Elsner (tenor); Robert Holl (bass); Heiko Holtmeier (organ)
Philharmonischer Chor Berlin; Berliner Singakademie; Knaben des Staats- und Domchores Berlin
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Jörg-Peter Weigle
rec. live, 1 May 2013, Philharmonie, Berlin
Latin text and German translation included
CAPRICCIO C5267 [75:20]

Walter Braunfels converted to Catholicism in the aftermath of his experiences in World War I and in the years that followed he wrote two very substantial works that demonstrated his faith. The first of these was his Te Deum, Op 32 (1922) which I believe he regarded as a “token of gratitude” for his conversion. Then came his Grosse Messe, the composition of which occupied him for several years. Completed in 1926 the Mass was first performed in the following year under the baton of Hermann Abendroth, who had also led the premiere of the Te Deum. According to Jens F Laurson’s very useful notes the Mass received a few more performances in 1927 and then languished in complete neglect until it was revived in Stuttgart in 2010 by Manfred Honeck. That performance was issued on CD by Decca; it’s still listed on Amazon but otherwise copies may be hard to find. I’ve not heard Honeck’s recording but if it’s as good as his very impressive 2004 live recording of the Te Deum (Orfeo C 679 071 A) then it will be worth seeking out – but in addition to this recording, not instead of it. Interestingly, both of the female soloists who sing in this Capriccio performance also sang in Honeck’s.

The present one, led by Jörg-Peter Weigle, was only the work’s second outing in modern times. Though the booklet doesn’t say that it’s a live recording I’m sure it was, based on the modest amount of inter-movement noise and the fact that the performance was recorded on a single date. However, there’s no intrusive audience noise and there’s no applause at the end.

Though I’ve had the chance to hear and admire quite a bit of Braunfels’ music on disc in the last year or so the Grosse Messe was completely new to me. It’s a most interesting and impressive composition. The scoring is substantial: the work requires four vocal soloists, SATB chorus, boys’ choir, organ and a large orchestra. All six of the usual sections of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass are set and there are two additional movements. The first of these, after the Credo, is entitled Offertorium and is a setting of verses from Psalm 85 (86), ‘Confitebor tibi, Domine Deus meus’. Between the Sanctus and Benedictus comes a short instrumental movement entitled Interludium.

The Kyrie gets the Mass off to an impressive start. The music starts mysteriously, the chorus sounding awestruck. A beseeching soprano solo leads off the soloists’ contributions and the movement rises to an impassioned climax at ‘Christe eleison’ before relapsing into the opening mood of mystery.

The Gloria opens jubilantly. There are a number of tumultuous passages in this movement and the soloists’ roles are operatic in dimension – as is the case elsewhere in the Mass. The music moves between lyrical and dramatic episodes but I’d say that drama predominates. Braunfels’ textures are often complex and the music is never less than fascinating.

The setting of the Credo is on an epic scale – it plays for 28:13 in this performance. Part of the reason for that is Braunfels’ tendency to repeat words or phrases, though the music itself is anything but repetitive. The movement begins with suppressed tension in the orchestra and then the boys’ choir, making their first contribution to the score, I think, intone the opening Credo. They do so confidently and it’s worth saying at this point that the composer’s use of the boys’ choir is telling throughout and that the boys assembled here do an excellent job. Braunfels makes the opening lines, ‘Credo in unum Deum’, a strong affirmation of faith. At 6:02 the boys sing ‘Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum’ to a plainchant melody which underpins much of the following passage. I may be mistaken but this was the first time I noticed a plainchant motif woven into the music but it’s not the last time that this happens during the remainder of the work. The music is awestruck at ‘Et incarnatus est’ (11:22). Braunfels has his bass soloist announce ‘Et resurrexit’ (14:21). At first the glad tidings of the Resurrection are announced in a fairly restrained way but the music soon becomes much more fervent. There’s an interesting episode at ‘Et interim venturus est judicare …’ which is set to a very martial rhythm. At 21:18 a fugal passage for strings introduces a long choral fugue on the words ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’; could Braunfels have had the example of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in mind, I wonder, even if he eschews a hectic speed? The fugue achieves an incandescent climax after which ‘Amen’ is sung to blazingly exultant music. I haven’t begun to do justice to the amount of incident and inventiveness that one encounters in this setting of the Credo. If its length seems daunting, don’t be put off; it may be long but it’s not longwinded.

After such a teeming, eventful movement the listener really needs a break: Capriccio sensibly have a gap of some 11 seconds at the end of the Credo but you may wish to hit the pause button as well. Braunfels supplies welcome contrast with the Offertorium. Here the music is calmer, the mood prayerful. Much of the text is sung by the soloists. There’s a great deal of contrast in the Sanctus, the music moving from mystery to majesty. The very quiet ending is something of a surprise. The Interludium that follows is a short, fairly subdued movement for strings, organ and brass which flows seamlessly into the Benedictus. Once again I’m struck by the structural parallel with Beethoven and the Praeludium to the Benedictus in Missa Solemnis. The orchestral introduction to the Benedictus is lengthy and ecstatic, with sweeping violins much in evidence. The introduction of voices is delayed until 2:29 when the choir begins to sing gently. Braunfels builds the intensity very strongly as the movement unfolds but the hushed ending for unaccompanied choir is a lovely touch.

The Agnus Dei offers another example of a progression from fairly quiet beginnings to music that is intense and heartfelt. Despite the undoubted intensity of the music Braunfels still manages to give his soloists some inspired lyrical lines to sing. Jens F Laurson draws a parallel with Janáček in this respect and though the two composers’ sound-worlds are very different I think the point is well made. At the end the final pleas of Dona nobis pacem are quiet and imploring. In something of a masterstroke Braunfels gives the last word to the boys’ choir. The booklet quotes the reaction of Manfred Honeck to those closing bars: “To end a piece with a boys’ choir is really unbelievable. The innocence of children, the idea of peace carried forward by children … Children have peace … just the idea is amazing. With Braunfels, it’s never about himself.” I agree: it’s a highly original ending but, then, so much about this score is highly original.

The performance seems to me to be an excellent one and one delivered with very strong conviction – I only use the word “seems” because the work was new to me when this CD arrived and I have no yardstick against which to judge it. The notes tell us that Jörg-Peter Weigle, who is the chorus master of the Philharmonischer Chor Berlin, was completely gripped by the score when he first read it. That comes across in the way he conducts, obtaining fine, dedicated playing and singing from his orchestra and choirs. It seemed to me that sometimes Robert Holl sounded a bit strained and over-emphatic in his delivery but overall the solo quartet is a strong one and Simone Schneider is a commanding vocal presence.

The recorded sound is good and the notes provide a useful and enthusiastic introduction to the work, including its performance history.

The more I hear of Walter Braunfels’ music the more impressed I am. The Grosse Messe is an imposing work. Sadly, I suspect that the demands it makes on performers and the conservatism of concert planners mean that opportunities to hear it live will be extremely limited. We must be grateful then for this fine, committed recorded performance which makes it possible for us properly to evaluate this musical statement of faith.

John Quinn

Note: German-speaking readers who want to learn more about the piece can access a very detailed programme note for the concert preserved on this CD, which includes musical examples.



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