July 18, 2013


Bruckner: Masses Nos. 1-3; Te Deum. Isabelle Müller-Kant, soprano; Eibe Möhlmann, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Sans, tenor; Christof Fischesser, bass; Chamber Choir of Europe and Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen conducted by Nicol Matt (Mass No. 1); Magdaléna Hajóssyová, soprano; Rosemarie Lang, alto; Peter-Jürgen Schmidt, tenor; Hermann Christian Polster, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Heinz Rögner (Masses Nos. 2-3; Te Deum). Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Einojuhani Rautavaara: Sacred Choral Works. Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava. Ondine. $16.99.

Schubert: Octet. Markus Krusche, clarinet; Daniel Mohrmann, bassoon; Christoph Eß, horn; Alexandra Hengstebeck, double bass; Amaryllis Quartett (Gustav Frielinghaus and Lena Wirth, violins; Lena Eckels, viola; Yves Sandoz, cello). Genuin. $18.99.

     The importance of Bruckner’s sacred music to his symphonies is often mentioned in passing but rarely considered in depth, perhaps because the intermingling of the sacred and secular is a difficult subject for many listeners and commentators to discuss nowadays. The fact is that Bruckner’s vision was above all a religious one, even when he found distinctly secular methods of communicating it – and he himself was intensely involved in the use of symphonic methods to develop and communicate his religious sentiments. Audiences these days are more comfortable with large-scale symphonies than with most large-scale traditionally religious choral works, and Bruckner himself moved wholly into the symphonic realm after completing his three masses and Te Deum over a 20-year period (1864-84, excluding some later revisions). Bits and pieces of the masses and Te Deum appear within the symphonies themselves, most notably in the Seventh and Ninth, and it is often said that Bruckner considered having the Te Deum used as the finale of the Ninth when he realized that he would not live to complete the symphony. Although that story may be apocryphal, it is insightful, and helps point the way for those who would seek and have sought to finish the incomplete fourth movement of Bruckner’s last symphony – for although the triumphal Te Deum does not really fit with the symphony’s first three movements, it begins with the same descending motif (a fourth and a fifth) with which the symphony opens, so it does produce organic unity; and the bright C major of the Te Deum indicates that Bruckner intended a positive and uplifting finish for the D minor symphony. In any case, the Te Deum and masses are remarkable accomplishments on their own terms, and having them available in very fine (if not always supremely polished) versions, as a Brilliant Classics three-CD set at an excellent price, is very welcome. It is interesting that all three masses are in minor keys: D, E and F minor respectively. It is also interesting how differently Bruckner handles the traditional Latin text and the instrumentation in these works. Nos. 1 and 3 are significantly overbalanced toward the Credo, whose words clearly had far more than formulaic meaning for the composer. No. 1 moves from its opening sustained pedal note to an evocative pianissimo conclusion, in between offering elements of mystery (especially in use of the horns) as well as tradition (the fugal writing is quite assured). No. 2 is an oddity, and a fascinating one, being written for soloists, chorus and 15 wind instruments – no strings, and none of the massive orchestral textures now generally considered Brucknerian. There are two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones and four horns, and their combined sound provides a richness that is enhanced by the contrast between the modern-sounding wind writing and the rather old-fashioned vocal parts, in which the work’s six sections are reasonably well-balanced. In contrast, the longest mass, No. 3, follows its very extended Credo with a Sanctus that lasts less than two minutes. As for the Te Deum, its comparatively forthright triumphalism is of a different order from the expressiveness of the masses. This work has impressed performers and audiences in just about every possible form, from a première using two pianos rather than orchestra to an early U.S. performance that included 800 singers and 120 instrumental players. Mahler conducted the work repeatedly and deemed it written “for the tongues of angels,” and it does resound with passion and intensity worthy of the highest aspirations of the sacred.

     Those aspirations remain even in our more-secular age, and composers such as Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) continue to explore them. The eight chorus-only works here are dominated by Missa a cappella, a pronounced contrast with Bruckner’s masses, as Rautavaara explores essentially the same liturgical material at shorter length and in a more-direct way, the music clearly tying back to the harmonic language of Bruckner’s time but also including some more-modern elements. The Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava is a very fine ensemble indeed, smooth and polished and expressive throughout this work and the others here: Psalm of Invocation; Evening Hymn; the very interestingly structured Missa duodecanonica; the heartfelt Ave Maria, gratia plena and equally expressive Canticum Maria Virginis; Our Joyful’st Feast; and Die erste Elegie. Several of the works tend to blend together in their sound and sentiment, and although Rautavaara does have a style that effectively melds older and newer harmonies and structures, the CD starts to pale somewhat as it goes on and on in much the same vein; it therefore gets a (+++) rating. Bruckner shows that grand-scale religious works written well over a century ago can still resonate with modern audiences; Ondine’s Rautavaara disc, although its performers are of the highest quality, indicates that shorter, more-modern sacred works, heard one after the other, end up being of interest not so much to listeners in general as to those who remain predisposed to belief in and practice of organized religion.

     For those for whom the communicative potency of music need not lie in the same sphere as that of traditional religion, Schubert’s Octet in F, D. 803, provides a perfect example of “staying power” and the use of a minimal number of instruments to attain it. Of course, as chamber music goes, an eight-instrument piece is on the large size, just as the 15-wind-instrument Bruckner Mass No. 2 is on the small size for a work of that particular form. But music’s expressiveness is ultimately dependent not on the extent of an ensemble but on the way the composer uses the forces at his disposal to put forth what he is trying to communicate both structurally and emotionally. The Schubert Octet is a longer work than any of the Bruckner masses, its six movements lasting a full hour, and it is a piece that can be difficult for an ensemble to sustain. Even harder can be exploring the beauties of the individual movements while keeping the overall structure in sight. For instance, the symphonic expansiveness of the first, second and final movements is contrasted with the somewhat lighter, more divertimento-like third through fifth movements, which means performers need to find a way to make the start of the third movement fit with the end of the second – and must return to greater intensity in the sixth movement immediately after finishing the fifth. This is a mature Schubert work, written in 1824, four years before his death – but it is also a youthful work, as is all Schubert’s music, since the composer died at age 31. Sometimes young performers seem to have a natural affinity for Schubert’s chamber music, and that appears to be the case with this new Genuin recording. The players were scholarship winners at the 2009 German Music Competition in Berlin, and they are no strangers to this music, having performed it more than two dozen times during the 2010-11 concert season. They are particularly well attuned to the humor and jocularity of the music, which is pervasive and is used by Schubert to leaven the seriousness of many sections. This is a nicely nuanced performance, the ensemble playing precise and poised, the individual voices bursting forth with elegant tunefulness and always excellent intonation. The pacing of each movement is just right, with the especially expansive opening setting a high standard that the rest of the work attains as well. Clarinet virtuosity (the work was commissioned by a nobleman who was skilled on the instrument) is evident throughout, but not at the expense of cooperation in ensemble playing. Playfulness is ever-present when appropriate, as in the Andante con variazoni, but when serious garb is donned again in the finale, the players are quite equal to the change of tone, showcasing the profundity of this movement as a suitable contrast to the lightness of the ones immediately preceding it. This is a top-notch (++++) performance of Schubert’s Octet, filled with sentiments that come through to the listener – using a small instrumental group and without words – every bit as effectively as do Bruckner’s religious musings in works combining verbal expression with the use of a substantial wind ensemble or a full orchestra.

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