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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (1887-9) [61:15]
Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1867-8) [63:07]
Ruth Ziesak (soprano), Janina Baechle (alto), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Günther Groissböck (bass)
Wiener Singakademie
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, April 2013, June 2015, Konzerthaus Wien, Vienna
CAPRICCIO C5247 [61:15, 63:07]

An odd issue, this, awkwardly yoking the Mass to the Symphony, though each is contained on a single disc. Perhaps, in a declining market, Capriccio thought to get more mileage out of the recordings: I suspect that fewer collectors – do we still exist? – have recordings of the Mass than of the Ninth Symphony.

Cornelius Meister’s account of the Ninth Symphony displays many of the same strengths and weaknesses as did his Romantic (Capriccio C5150). His flowing, straightforward reading moves firmly into climaxes, with soft, cushiony landings, so the sound opens ‘out’. He has a good ear for orchestral texture and characterizes the music vividly. In the first movement, the two themes are strongly contrasted: the first is imposing, the second ‘open’ and optimistic. The striding D minor passage at 7:55 is a menacing march, the bit at 11:28 in the development agitated. In the crisp, articulate Scherzo, the first crashing tutti is stark and terrifying – though its returns lose the element of surprise – and the Trio rolls along nicely. Meister’s structural command of the third movement isn’t quite as clear as Paavo Järvi’s (RCA): the sense of impending valediction at 21:11, for example, is premature. But the music again benefits from strong characterizations: the transition between themes at 3:40 is mysterious, the ‘scurrying’ bit at 19:05 is just right, and the coda is spacious and concentrated.

On the debit side, as in the Ninth, Meister’s deep feeling is marred by internal miscoordinations – and may, as much as musical intent, actually be responsible for the soft landings. Numerous unmarked ritards, while well-intentioned, cause smudged woodwind attacks, perhaps betraying unclear baton signals. The transitional bar at 14:52 in the first movement gets softer and more tentative, though it shouldn’t. The outer movements suffer a few imprecise dovetails between instruments and groups, and the ominous outburst at 21:57 of the finale isn’t quite well enough organized. In the Scherzo, some unmarked accelerations in the heat of the moment serve no clear purpose.

Since Bruckner was profoundly religious – a devout Catholic, he dedicated the Ninth Symphony dem lieben Gott (“to the loving God”) – whose symphonies carried metaphysical overtones, you might expect that a Mass setting would have been right up his alley. What surprised me, revisiting the F minor Mass, was the score’s generalized tone, in both the literal and figurative senses. To be sure, the composer provides the requisite fugues, though with novel touches: ‘In gloria Dei Patris’ is a double fugue, while the fugue in the Credo’s home stretch is punctuated by chorales. The high, ‘open’ sonority at the start of the Sanctus is suitably ethereal; elsewhere, rugged, block-like contours evoke the Te Deum’s proclamatory mood. There are effective pictorial passages: the Gloria’s cascading start suggests the heavens opening, while, in the Credo, the rugged ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum’ suggests that the ground, in turn, may be opening and the dead rising! What we don’t get are the luminous, aspiring string themes of the symphonies – particularly in the Seventh and, ironically, the Ninth. You might think the symphonies were sacred and this Mass secular!

Meister’s leadership, while unfailingly musical, may be part of the problem: the emphasis on abstract flow and structure doesn’t leave much room for metaphysics. His control problems, too, become a greater issue here, if only because the larger-framed score – involving orchestra, chorus, and solo quartet, as opposed to ‘just’ a large orchestra with expanded brass – simply allows more opportunities for things to go awry. (The final chord of the piece lands twice: the violins win.) The chorus is well-trained, except when it isn’t. The blend and balance are good, but some phrase ends get swallowed, and the inner parts in the fugues tend to disappear.

The vocal quartet is strangely matched. Ruth Ziesak still sounds surprisingly fresh, though the highest notes have become stiff, and she lacks the sheer amplitude for the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Benjamin Bruns is a good tenor, combining a Germanic timbre with an Italianate legato. The bass, Günther Groissböck, is firm, if monotonously insistent at the top; he and Bruns, unfortunately, don’t mesh at all in their brief Sanctus duet phrases. Janina Baechle starts out sounding like a throaty tenor, and never quite loses that sound: even her Sanctus solo sounds bottled-up. Over speakers, she holds her own in the ensembles; under headphones, she seems to recede.

In both works, the orchestra plays well when the conductor doesn’t get in the way. In the symphony, the horns’ firm contributions are particularly impressive – they occasionally emerge in spots where they’re usually buried, or obscured – and, as the lower strings join the violins in the finale, they are impressively resonant.

The engineering is fine. In the Symphony, the tuttis fill the room effectively, but watch the playback level, or they'll turn harsh. Groissböck sounds too closely miked in the Kyrie of the Mass; the vocal balances right themselves thereafter.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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