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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Mass in E Minor (1869) [36.37] (1)
Libera me, Domine (1854) [5.10] (1)
Josef Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839–1901)
Requiem in E flat major (1867) [18.23]
KammerChor Saarbrücken
Kammerphilharmonie Mannheim(1)/Georg Grün
rec. Studio 1, Saarlandischer Rundfunk, 1-3 February 2008. DDD
CARUS 83.414 [59.10]

 

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Bruckner
’s Mass in E minor is available on CD in a variety of versions. Matthew Best’s performance with the Corydon Singer has been re-issued by Hyperion on its budget price Helios label. Dating from the 1980s it has been a touch-stone for years. But last year Hyperion issued a new full price disc, this time with Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton - another benchmark against which we must measure others.

Georg Grün’s KammerChor Saarbrücken was founded in 1990 and has developed into one of the major German choirs. They have an interesting discography which covers music from all periods including contemporary. On this new disc the choir are joined by members of the Kammerphilharmonie Mannheim for Bruckner’s E minor mass. Then the choir alone perform Rheinberger’s unaccompanied Requiem in E flat.

The Mass in E minor is the second of Bruckner’s three full-scale masses. It was originally intended for the commemoration of a new votive chapel at the Cathedral in Linz. The service was to take place out of doors, hence the use of only wind instruments, traditional harmonie-musik, as accompaniment. In the mass Bruckner welds his interest in vocal practices of earlier times with more contemporary structural techniques. It is a far more modern work than the previous Mass in D minor - for the first time we can hear the Bruckner of the symphonies with his liking for contrasting blocks of massed sound. In many ways the mass is quite austere, with lightly accompanied quiet contrapuntal voices punctuated by louder bodies of sound.

An ideal performance must combine a feeling for the sacred with a more secular revelling in the sheer gorgeousness of Bruckner’s sounds. Though intended as a strictly liturgical work, this is a piece which is suspended part-way between church and concert hall.

The KammerChor Saarbrücken make a bright, focused sound. It sounds as if they are quite a young group and their virtues are focus, clarity and a fine sense of line. As recorded here, their sound quality would work well in the music of earlier periods which inspired Bruckner. The quiet opening of the Kyrie is ravishing. Under Grün’s capable direction they give the music a quiet intensity which makes it clear that this is a reading in which the sacred is to the fore.

The performance does get loud and Grün shows himself adept at balancing the structure of Bruckner’s piece. But my overall impression was one of quietness and a revealing of the soul of the piece; ethereal transparency seems to be Grün’s goal. When you compare the performance with Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers, you find that the Corydons are no less spiritual, but the choir has a bit more aural presence - they are clear and pure but warmer of tone than Grün’s forces. This pays dividends when the music gets louder.

What the KammerChor Saarbrücken do not quite seem to do is to revel in Bruckner’s luxurious textures.  Even when things get loud and high, the choral sound remains relatively austere and rather cool.

It is pointless recording this mass unless the sopranos can sing the high vocal lines in a confident manner. This the KammerChor Saarbrücken do, but the sound quality never really opens up. Too often in reviews I find myself bemoaning choirs whose tone quality neglects a sense of line and focus. I have even suggested that certain choirs give up singing renaissance music and try Bruckner! Here I find that I am made to stand on my head and wish that, in the major moments, the choir would open up more and make a more Romantic sound.  It is significant that for most of the performance the choir sounds smaller than its fifty-strong complement. That said, this is a beautifully performed and shaped account of the mass.

They are nicely accompanied by the winds of the Kammerphilharmonie Mannheim. Like the choir they give a slight backwards glance to Bruckner’s accompaniment, giving it the attractive feel of the Harmonie-Musik of previous generations. The balance between choir and instruments is perhaps a little more natural on this disc than on the Corydon Singers disc, where the instrumental ensemble seems to dominate somewhat.

The Bruckner mass is accompanied by a strong performance of his motet Libera me, Domine.

The disc is completed by Rheinberger’s Requiem in E flat, for unaccompanied chorus. This should not be confused with his earlier Requiem in B flat minor. The E flat Requiem was probably written on the occasion of the death of his sister. The title page bears the remark ‘easy to perform’ and this is most definitely practical music. The work is mainly homophonic and syllabic, with much use of chorale-style material. Each of the movements is a short motet-like piece. In his earlier sacred music, Rheinberger was influenced by the Cecilian movement and their tenets seem, to be echoed in this setting. It is a charming piece, well performed by Georg Grün and his choir, but it is not a work that I will come back to very often.

There is much to commend on this disc, but Georg Grün and his choir are up against strong competition especially as the Corydons’ disc is now available at budget price. Also, not everyone will like the clean, clear sound quality of Grün’s choir, but it will appeal to some.

Robert Hugill

 

 


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