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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor, WAB29 (1854) [30:19]
interspersed with:
Robert FÜHRER (1807-1861)
Christus factus est, KolF87/14 (1830) [2:38]
Joseph EYBLER (1765-1846)
Magna et mirabilia, IHV108 (1828) [2:52]
Johann Baptist GÄNSBACHER (1778-1844)
Te Deum in D major, Op.45 (1844) [4:14]
Tantum Ergo in B-flat major, WAB44 (1852) [2:21]
Magnificat in B-flat major, WAB24 (1852) [4:31]
Johann Winkel (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor), Ludwig Mittelhammer (baritone)
RIAS Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2017, Konzerthaus, Berlin, Germany

As with his numbered Symphonies, Bruckner’s three official Mass settings do not tell the whole story of his output in that genre. Although there is no ‘Mass No. 0’, there are settings by him of the principal rite of the Catholic Church which predate the designated No. 1. One of these is the Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor. The listener will search in vain for any hints of the Masses and Symphonies to come, or even for any echoes of its monumental namesake by Beethoven, however, as this work is a taut and concise setting that follows the models of – and indeed sounds like – the Classical settings by Haydn and Schubert of around fifty years previously. It would be interesting to know how many would guess that Bruckner was the composer if they heard the work without knowing who the composer was.

This release is an invaluable project which reconstructs the circumstances of the Missa’s first performance at the installation of Friedrich Mayr as the Provost of the Abbey of St. Florian on 14 September 1854. It does not particularly aim to shed light forwards on to Bruckner’s subsequent development as the composer of nine of the greatest symphonies of the Romantic era, but it does set the background against which the young composer worked as a fairly prolific exponent of church music as he came to creative maturity.

Łukasz Borowicz’s historically-informed account with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is lithe and balanced, whilst ensuring that the performance remains dignified overall. Rhythmic impulse is present with the nimble tread of the lower string instruments for the opening Kyrie, and the Benedictus, as well as the throbbing accompaniment for the ‘Qui tollis’ section of the Gloria. Heftier sections do not become sententious or ponderous, though there is palpable drama for the Credo’s ‘Et resurrexit’ sequence, and Borowicz maintains a decorously modest pace for the fugues at the end of both that section and the Gloria, avoiding the temptation to create momentum and tension artificially by rushing ahead.

The RIAS Kammerchor play their part in sustaining a solemn, sober account of the work, with their sensitively integrated choral textures which produce an attractive, transparent harmony rather than a competitive jostle for attention as the different lines come into prominence in the contrapuntal passages. Likewise, the soloists make some distinctive contributions, such as Ludwig Mittelhammer in his mellow delivery of the Gloria’s ‘Qui tollis’, and the almost coy rendition of the Benedictus by Sophie Harmsen. But again, their unanimity of ensemble when they sing together stands out most of all.

Interspersed among the movements of Bruckner’s Missa are a handful of other liturgical settings which were used at the first performance; it is claimed that these are world premiere recordings of the works by the other composers here, as well as of this completion of the particular ‘Tantum Ergo’ setting by Bruckner which is offered. They are not masterpieces, but they are efficient and tuneful settings which receive commendable performances, sympathetically conveying their diligent imitations of the Classical Viennese tradition. Joseph Eybler was a pupil of Mozart, and Magna et mirabilia could almost be mistaken for a work of his. The choir sings that with suitable dignity, in contrast with the fitting sombreness of Robert Führer’s Christus factus est, and the ebullience of Johann Baptist Gänsbacher’s Te Deum.

Not quite all the conditions of that original performance are mimicked, however, as this recording stems from a live, secular performance in a concert hall, with somewhat more performers in the orchestra and chorus than Bruckner would have had at his disposal and using women rather boys in the latter. Nevertheless, the acoustic is spacious and generous, so as not to limit the impact of this appealing music. No words are given in the booklet but, apart from Eybler’s ‘Offertorium’, the compositions here set the standard liturgical texts which can easily be found online. The notes by Bruckner expert Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs are extensive and informative. These works may not startle, but they offer Brucknerians a fascinating glimpse of another side to this composer which is rarely encountered, and is made all the more intriguing in these exemplary performances.

Curtis Rogers


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