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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphonisches Praeludium in C minor (attrib.) (1876) [6:32]
Mass No. 3 in F minor, Große Messe, WAB 28 (1867/68) inc. Ave Maria III (1882) [65:22]
Postludium – Organ Improvisation [6:26]
Cynthia Clayton (soprano); Melanie Sonnenberg (mezzo-soprano); Joseph Evans (tenor); Timothy Jones (bass-baritone); Sigurd Øgaard (organ)
Houston Symphony Chorus
Moores School Symphony Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager, Michelle Perrin Blair
rec. live 26-27 April 2013, Grace Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas
Producer & Recording Engineer: John Proffitt

The first thing to say about this Blu-ray release is that it is in absolutely glorious sound. My MusicWeb colleague Dave Billinge has already reviewed the multi-channel Surround Sound option, which I understand is far superior, but I am bowled over by its immediacy even while listening only in conventional stereo; kudos to producer and recording engineer John Proffitt for his masterly management of a recording of demonstration quality. There is virtually no audience noise and balances are close to ideal, permitting just enough reverberation to convey the ambiance of the recording venue but never becoming muddied.

While I am aware that many a Brucknerian is deeply attached to the Mass no. 1, I have always found it diffuse and of the two larger-scale masses far prefer the more mature No. 3, which is as dramatic a construct as any of the late, great symphonies, hence its sobriquet “a Symphony with Words”. Bruckner clearly conceived of the F minor Mass as having a “vertical” nature; it is a massive, Romantic outpouring of deep faith rather than just an expression of human emotion. Whatever Bruckner’s original intention, it is generally considered too grand and unwieldy to fit neatly into the liturgy of a Eucharistic Mass and is now much more likely to be encountered as a concert performance; Bruckner was himself no doubt aware of that when he wrote it but he makes no compromise in his emphasis upon its elevation of the hieratic and mysterious aspects of his Catholicism. Hence, we are rarely consoled by the reassurances such as temper the uncomfortable realities of death and grief in Brahms’ roughly contemporary Requiem and no other liturgical works save those by Berlioz create such majestic and awe-inspiring scenarios as, for example, the holy row which heralds Bruckner’s depiction of the Resurrection. The grandeur and urgency of his idiom here leave no room for the period finickiness of “transparent textures”; this is music which seeks to confront the Believer with the terror of the Last Judgement. That constitutes the central highpoint of this performance and the performers give their all to ensure that its wild, pounding exaltation makes maximum impact. Despite the drama of proceedings, Bruckner never strays into the more overt, operatic idiom of Verdi’s Requiem, nor does he concern himself with Brahms’ and Verdi’s personal terrors and supplications but instead looks heavenward as a part the Church Militant to the universal theme of the Parousia. However, the sweetness and serenity of the quartet and chorus in the Benedictus, lovingly performed here, echo that same movement in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Bruckner would recycle its main theme a few years later in the Adagio of his Second Symphony.

Franz Anton Krager’s tempi represent a juste milieu between those of Jochum and Celibidache, although the acoustic of the location and the scale of the performance indicate more commonality with the latter, regardless of any comparison of raw timings and he clearly wishes to underline the massive symphonic structure of the Mass.

The choir and orchestra have clearly been drilled and rehearsed to a very high level of unanimity and expressiveness. There are one or two flubs, such as in the descending staccato string figure two minutes into, and towards the close of, the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” and occasionally string tone and intonation could respectively be sweeter and truer but in general the performance is technically very accomplished. The Gloria and Credo combined present any choir with the challenge of singing for over half an hour often at a repeated forte, and both attack and energy levels are well sustained here. The one thing which compromises this performance is that the solo singers are not of the first rank. They are perfectly audible but not meant to sound like principal opera singers, so are deliberately set quite far back in the aural landscape, so as to be integrated into the overall wash of the audio texture; this might partially account for some of what we may hear as intermittently excessive vibrato and, despite being competent, none has the depth, resonance and steadiness characteristic of the finest voices – a failing increasingly encountered in our age. The mezzo is sound but there is something of an edge in the soprano’s tone and the tenor‘s line can develop a bleat or beat. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones is given the solo role Bruckner’s third Ave Maria, which is included as a Sequence Hymn; its key of F facilitates a neat and seamless segue into the ensuing Sanctus, even though his top notes lack resonance and his concluding low F is not secure.

Another bonus is the use of the attributed - some would still say doubtfully - Symphonisches Praeludium as a prelude to the Mass, a splendid, Wagnerian mini-tone-poem which makes extensive use of the brass section, exploiting the thrilling sonorities of trumpets, trombones and the bass tuba. I welcome and thoroughly enjoy its inclusion. One theory is that it is in substance most likely to have been at least sketched by Bruckner even if perhaps some of the orchestration was completed by his pupil Krzyzanowski; others disagree. In any case, it makes a lovely and novel introduction, is hardly inappropriate in mood or content and is surely preferable to, say, Bruckner’s Overture in G-Minor, which is a student composition and rather bland by comparison. A final extra offering, apparently included in the concerts as a late and happy afterthought, is Sigurd Øgaard’s organ improvisation as a postludium – an unusual and absorbing exercise, first grave and imposing, then rising to a magnificent climax four minutes in before reverting to the mood of the opening in a conclusion whose stately tread and insistent ostinato phrase are reminiscent of the unveiling of the Grail in Parsifal.

Previous recordings might feature starrier soloists and slicker orchestras but the spectacular sound, the sincerity and devotion of performers and the inclusion of the unusual and valuable bonus items make this a tempting prospect for any committed Brucknerian.

Ralph Moore
Previous review: Dave Billinge

(This review commissioned by The Bruckner Journal and posted here by their kind permission)

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