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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Mass No. 2 in E minor for double choir and wind instruments, WAB 27 (2nd version of 1882, revised 1885, 1896) [36:36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Mass, for choir and wind Instruments (1948) [16:34]
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Wind players of Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Gijs Leenaars
rec. 2019, Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186774 [53:10]

Gijs Leenaars, principal conductor and artistic director of Rundfunkchor Berlin, has chosen a pair of liturgical works by Bruckner and Stravinsky for his Pentatone label debut. The master composers’ distinctive settings of the Roman Catholic mass have real merit but are among their less popular works. They both treated the mass as an ideal medium to combine tradition with innovation, and each maintained his own characteristic style.
My enthusiasm for Bruckner’s sacred choral works was fired when I reported at Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2012 for a remarkable performance of his Mass No. 2 in E minor by Dresdner Kammerchor and wind players of Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann. That performance in the splendid ecclesiastical setting of Annenkirche, reinforced my opinion that a number of Bruckner’s liturgical settings are masterworks of the repertoire, which – when sympathetic performers are involved – can convey an absorbing spiritual quality.

Buoyed by the successful 1864 premiere of his Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner composed his Mass No. 2 in 1866 in response to a commission by the Diocesan bishop of Linz, Franz Joseph Rüdiger. This was to mark the consecration of the Votive Chapel of the new Linz Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Construction delays moved the premiere to 1869, when the Votive Chapel was completed; a performance was given out of doors in the Cathedral Square. Bruckner, who was then based in Vienna, had returned to Linz to conduct the premiere himself. He declared the occasion as ‘one of the greatest days of my life’. With some minor revisions, this score is now known as the Linz first version of 1866. Typically, Bruckner subjected the Mass to considerable revision in 1876 and 1882. Known now as the second version of 1882, it was premiered in 1885 once again at Linz, now at the Old Cathedral (Church of Ignatius). Prior to its publication in 1896, revisions were undertaken in 1885 and 1896. Gijs Leenaars conducts a performance of the second version, regarded by some distance as the finer of the two versions. Inquiries have revealed that Leopold Nowak’s edition (1959) is used here together with the vocal score from Cyrill Hynais’s piano reduction with text, revised by Karlhans Urbanek (1985).

Bruckner’s scoring is eight-part, mixed chorus (with no vocal soloists) and fifteen wind instruments (pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, three trombones and four horns). This stunning score looks back to Renaissance vocal polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina, coupled auspiciously with the late-Romantic fervour that was beginning to be so characteristic of Bruckner’s symphonies. Of Bruckner’s three magnificent masses, the Mass No. 2 with its wind ensemble has the dimensions most appropriate for an actual liturgical setting rather than concert performance as his other two masses with their symphonic component and more extravagant brand of Romantism.

If I ever needed reminding of the magnificence of this E minor Mass, Gijs Leenaars’s interpretation with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and wind players shows how keenly the wide dynamics of the score are achieved, and the intensity of religious feeling produced from the Latin text. There is an especially striking contrast between the calm and intimate, highly reverential passages such as Et incarnatus est in the Credo, and fitting climaxes of a Romantic ardour. Leenaars exemplifies these qualities by communicating a special devotional awe, conspicuously in the Benedictus with the fortissimo passage at the words Hosanna in excelsis.

Stravinsky’s Mass dates from his first decade in the USA, where he had moved in 1939 from France. It was in a Los Angeles second-hand shop where Stravinsky came across some Mozart masses, which he described as ‘rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin’. Feeling compelled to write a mass of his own, he commenced work in 1944 butowing to other commitments the score remained incomplete until work was resumed in 1948. Stravinsky intended his Mass for church use, not concert hall, but it was Ernest Ansermet who conducted the premiere in 1948 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. The Mass is scored for an unusual combination that produces a remarkable sonority: mixed choir and double wind quintet consisting of two oboes, cor anglais, two bassoons, two trumpets and three trombones. Often the Mass is played in the version with organ accompaniment instead of winds.

A dignified and challenging work, the Mass certainly requires first-class performers. Under Leenaars, the Rundfunkchor surmount the score’s rigours with a masterly performance of captivating clarity and interpretive integrity. There are remarkable bitter harmonies in the score that produce genuine effect. The Rundfunkchor preserve an austere beauty, and perform with a sense of total involvement. I especially admire the final movement Agnus Dei, here with a convincingly dark and powerful Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. In the Gloria and Sanctus movements, there are minor solo parts sung here quite splendidly by chorus members Barbara Berg, Christine Lichtenberg, Mathis Koch and Wolfram Teßmer. Another highlight of the Gloria is its commencement with a quite lovely interplay by several of the winds, initially oboe and trumpet. Gratifyingly, the chorus in combination with wind players serve to add a distinctive sonority to this engaging performance.

I have attended a number of concerts by the Rundfunkchor Berlin. I have witnessed first-hand how magnificently this professional chorus consistently performs. It is impeccably prepared by Leenaars in this pair of Bruckner and Stravinsky masses. Undeniably, the chorus demonstrates its ability to move from the respective soundworlds of Bruckner’s Romantic passion and sacred awe to the disciplined precision of Stravinsky’s sombre and unadorned, neoclassical aesthetic. Compelling and thrilling to hear with such impeccable unity and intonation, the Rundfunkchor demonstrate a thorough grasp of the import of the Latin text.

The wind players of Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, fifteen in the Bruckner and ten in the Stravinsky, give inspiringly alert and focused performances. Core features of the playing are technical prowess, steadfast ensemble, and an attractive, characterful tone of their instruments. The cool, clear sound suits the Stravinsky score down to the ground. Ideally, the Bruckner would benefit from a warmer sound, but it is still first-rate. There are no real worries regarding the balance between chorus and wind instruments, although I notice a slight concern has been expressed elsewhere. Given the relatively short playing time on the album a selection of Bruckner’s glorious Motets would have complemented this Mass No. 2 and increased the appeal of the release. In the booklet there is a pair of helpful essays by Maximilian Rauscher. Gratitude is owed to Pentatone for providing full Latin texts together with translations in German and English.

Among the extant recordings of these Bruckner and Stravinsky masses, there are a couple that I reach for first. There is the recording of the Bruckner Mass No. 2 that I initially had in my LP collection. I have long admired, in spite of rather patchy sonics, Eugen Jochen conducting Chor und Bläser des Symphonie-Orchesters des Bayerischen Rundfunks from 1971 at Herkulessaal, Munich on Deutsche Grammophon. With Stravinsky’s Mass, I maintain high regard for Daniel Reuss conducting RIAS Kammerchor and MusikFabrik in 2005 at Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem on Harmonia Mundi. Reuss’s Berlin album is coupled generously with Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Cantata.

Conducted assuredly by Gijs Leenaars, this Pentatone performance of Bruckner and Stravinsky masses is one of the most accomplished recordings of sacred choral music I have heard in some time, able to stand proudly alongside any rival in the record catalogue.

Michael Cookson

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