March 13, 2008


Schubert: Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D. 950; Stabat Mater in G Minor, D. 175. Immortal Bach Ensemble and Leipziger Kammerorchester conducted by Morten Schuldt-Jensen. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 11. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

      The Schubert of songs, symphonies and chamber music is not quite the Schubert of sacred works. Especially in the last Mass he composed – written in 1828, the year of his death – Schubert took pains to conform in most important respects to traditional liturgical structure, and to proclaim the words of the Mass as the Catholic Church wanted them (although he did not set the specific words about believing in a single holy and apostolic Catholic Church). It is perhaps because of the comparative conventionality of the Mass No. 6 that it is not especially well known – but it is well worth knowing by those who are familiar only with the secular Schubert. The prominent use of trombones is but one notable feature – they were often used in Schubert’s time to lend gravitas to this type of music, but the scoring here is particularly effective. And bits of Schubert’s ever-songlike style seep into even the most sober corners of this sacred work. The section Et incarnatus est flows with tremendous lyrical beauty, for example, and the Sanctus Dominus provides high drama. The fugues – a form with which Schubert is not frequently associated – are effectively handled in the Gloria and Credo, and the sometimes-surprising chromaticism throughout lends Mass No. 6 a sense of shifting disquietude that is somewhat at odds with the certainty expressed through its well-worn words. This Mass represents significant progress from the brief Stabat Mater of 1815, which does contain solemn trombones but is altogether less experimental and expressive. The performances here are excellent: the Immortal Bach Ensemble (formerly the Gewandhaus Chamber Choir) is flexible, nuanced and highly expressive under its director, Morten Schuldt-Jensen, and the Leipziger Kammerorchester’s support is smoothly integrated throughout the performance.

      Although Vienna did not become enthusiastic about Schubert’s music until after his death, it was already in the 1820s in the throes of a dance craze for the music of Joseph Lanner – and within a few years would embrace the works of one of Lanner’s orchestra members, Johann Strauss Sr., with even greater fervor. The Strauss works in the 11th volume of Marco Polo’s wonderful series of Strauss Sr.’s music all date from the decade after Schubert’s death, mostly from 1837-8, and show quite clearly where the Viennese musical heart and soul were located at the time. This is the first release in the series that contains only waltzes – nine of them – and that is both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, the CD showcases Strauss Sr.’s talent in this area more clearly than have any of the 10 prior volumes. On the other hand, it shows his weaknesses with equal clarity, for these waltzes – unlike those to be written later by his sons, Johann Jr. and Joseph – are mere collections of pretty tunes, without the tight symphonic structure that turned the works of the younger Strausses into miniature tone poems. Within Strauss Sr.’s abilities, though, these are wonderful works, played with great verve by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack. The most interesting waltz here is Huldigung der Königen Victoria von Großbritannien, written for Victoria’s coronation in 1837. After opening with a fanfare to fit the words, “Cheer to the Queen – Victoria!” it moves into Rule Britannia and eventually concludes with God Save the Queen in three-quarter time in the coda. Almost as interesting is Paris, Walzer, which manages to incorporate a waltz-time version of La Marseillaise – a controversial tune in its time, and one that was in fact banned in Austria when Strauss wrote the work.

      Among the other highlights here are Eisenbahn-Lust-Walzer, about the pleasures of rail travel, which opens with dramatic fanfares and features some sections imitative of railway sounds, and Ball-Racketen, Walzer, featuring bass drum and whistles to imitate fireworks. Some of the more straightforward waltzes flow nicely: Brüssler Spitzen (“Brussels Lace”), with a delicate opening and jaunty swing; Pilger am Rhein (“Pilgrims on the Rhine”), with a slow introduction and nice lilt, although its waltz tunes are undistinguished; and Bankett-Tänze (“Banquet Dances”), which starts hesitantly, then moves into bright and bouncy sections that build again and again, only to hesitate repeatedly (a likely challenge to the dancers). Then there are Exotische Pflanzen (“Exotic Plants”), nearly a quintessential Strauss Sr. waltz, with trills, percussion and an easy flow through which you can almost see the couples spinning; and Freuden-Grüsse (“Cheerful Greetings”), which is gentle and moves nicely, although its tunes are not memorable. In fact, many of Strauss Sr.’s waltz tunes do not stay with a listener for long – certainly not in the way that those by his sons do. Even his successful “railway” waltz pales before son Eduard’s marvelous Bahn Frei! polka. But it is scarcely fair to judge the father by what his sons would later do – and if in hindsight they surpassed him, it is nevertheless worth exploring the firm foundation of quality that Strauss Sr. created and on which his children would later build even more successfully.

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