January 21, 2016


Schubert: Complete Masses (D. 105, 167, 324, 452, 678 and 950); Deutsche Messe, D. 872; Salve Regina, D. 676; Magnificat, D. 486. Virtuosi Di Praga and Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andreas Weiser, Romano Gandolfi, Jack Martin Händler and Ulrich Backofen; Spandauer Kantorei Berlin, Cappella Vocale Hamburg and Bach Collegium Berlin conducted by Martin Behrmann; Wiener Kammerchor and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Hans Gillesberger; Kammerchor Stuttgart and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Frieder Bernius. Brilliant Classics. $25.99 (4 CDs).

     Renowned for his songs and symphonies, celebrated for his chamber music, Schubert is very rarely thought of as a composer of Masses – despite the fact that he composed six full Latin mass settings, as well as a Deutsche Messe and other liturgical works. The neglect of this music is in some ways understandable: Schubert himself was not particularly religious, and although there is much in the Masses that is songful and beautiful, there is little in them that explores the expressive glories of the human voice to the extent that Schubert does in his songs. On the other hand, the Masses reflect Schubert’s personal, if not always well-defined, spiritual sentiments, which glow through in the music despite the composer’s impatience with formal, traditional religious practice. The personal affirmation of a single holy Catholic church is conspicuously absent in all these Mass settings, yet there is a straightforward and sincere religiosity that comes through in them again and again.

     Although the basic texts that Schubert set were the same in these works (except in the Deutsche Messe), the performance difficulties and overall quality of the Masses vary considerably. The fifth and sixth Mass settings (in A-flat, D. 678, and in E-flat, D. 950) are the longest, the most complex, the most musically interesting and all in all the most effective. No. 5 took the composer an exceptionally long time to create, by his standards: three years. It uses a full-scale symphonic orchestra plus organ, but Schubert carefully calls on instruments when they are needed for particular points of emphasis rather than to produce overall sonic splendor. No. 6 is harmonically rich and instrumentally colorful, despite the omission of the flute that is used in No. 5; and this final Mass, unlike all its predecessors, gives less prominence to the soloists and more to the chorus.

     Masses Nos. 5 and 6 stand above Schubert’s other works in this form, but those works are by no means unworthy of being heard. The Deutsche Messe is a late work (1826, which places it between Mass No. 5 and Mass No. 6); but it is a brief Mass that was written specifically for amateur performance – each section is short and largely homophonic, and the piece as a whole is effective in its intended purpose as a popularization of church music. Each of the four earlier Latin Masses has its own character. No. 1 in F, written when Schubert was 17, calls for a very large complement of performers and features a highly expressive Kyrie and some particularly engaging writing for the soprano soloist. No. 2 in G is shorter, less substantive and less complex, with an especially moving Agnus Dei. No. 3 in B-flat is longer than No. 2 but somewhat more pedestrian in its setting, lacking some of the deeper feelings brought out in the earlier Masses – although still very well constructed and tuneful. No. 4 in C has a different musical hue from the others, being written only for strings and organ – and with violas omitted. In addition to the Masses, the new Brilliant Classics release includes two shorter liturgical pieces by Schubert, Salve Regina and Magnificat.

     This single-box release of all this music, even without any texts (easy to find for the Latin Mass, but not for the Deutsche Messe), is most welcome, doubly so because it is exceptionally well-priced. The performances, though, are not at a uniformly high level – although they are always adequate. This four-CD set is actually a compilation re-release of several recordings that originally appeared on other labels. The Deutsche Messe, conducted by Hans Gillesberger, is an analog recording from 1962; Mass No. 5, impressively and sensitively directed by Martin Behrmann, is another analog recording, in this case from 1978. The other music was recorded digitally, but in several venues and with varying soloists, choruses and instrumental players. The recording date was 1996 not only for Mass No. 1, Salve Regina and Magnificat (all conducted by Andreas Weiser), but also for Masses No. 2 (led by Romano Gandolfi), No. 3 (directed by Jack Martin Händler), and No. 4 (conducted by Ulrich Backofen). Mass No. 6, recorded in 1995, is led by the best of the conductors represented here, Frieder Bernius: his sure-handedness and careful sculpting of Schubert’s musical lines give this work a songfulness and forthright expressiveness that are altogether winning and that confirm the high quality of this final Schubert Mass. None of the other performances is unworthy, by any means, but all tend to be somewhat foursquare: they are diligent and well-paced, but generally a touch too formulaic to allow the music to reach its full expressive potential. Listeners interested in the differences of performance style among ensembles from Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany will find some intriguing distinctions of approach here, but nothing is taken to extremes: all these readings are suitably solemn, well-proportioned and nicely played, although none except that led by Bernius seems really to try to get past the words of the Mass to Schubert’s personal approach to the beliefs underlying those words. Still, this set of Schubert’s Masses shows again and again, in section after section, how Schubert’s melodiousness and fine handling of vocal lines create warmly involving music that makes the straightforward liturgical sentiments of the Latin Mass into something lovely, eloquent and often poignant.

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