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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Johann Michael HAYDN (1737-1806)
Motets and other Choral Works
Sebastian Krause, Eckart Wiegräbe, Uwe Gebel, Fernando Günther (trombones)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir (MDR-Rundfunkchor)/Philipp Ahmann
rec. February 2020, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, Germany
Text and translations included
Reviewed as DSF64 5.0 channel file from the Pentatone web site
PENTATONE PTC5186868 SACD [61:52]

My colleague, Brian Wilson, has already covered this release in his Passiontide and Easter 2021 overview, but I happened to listen to it on Qobuz myself and was thoroughly bowled over by both the performances of the well-known Bruckner choral works and the new (to me) choral music of Michael Haydn. I suspected that the recording might sound even more fantastic in its five-channel incarnation, and that’s the version I’m reviewing here. Not only are the performances at the highest level, but I’d say that the sound quality has probably reached a new pinnacle of realism in recordings of choral music. Especially in this multichannel format, the sound just opens out so much more beyond the confines of one’s listening room that I begin to feel that listening to the recorded sound is closer than ever to listening in person to the performances in the original location (in this case, the Paul-Gerhardt Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Connewitz district of Leipzig, in Saxony). The booklet photo shows more microphones than I like to see, but I can hardly argue with the wonderful results. (It’s always possible that some of the microphones seen in the picture were there simply there for back-up too.)

The Bruckner works have been recorded many times before, and, although a number of previous recordings have certainly captured the essence of this music, I’ve never heard the choral balance as much to my liking as on this recording. To my ears, some choral recordings are top heavy, with too much of the soprano parts in the balance, so that when one arrives at a particularly intense portion of a work (such as the fortississimo – or, as we Yanks like to say, “triple forte” – climax on the word, “pacem” in bar 47 of Virga Jesse – 2:04 in this performance), the sound becomes more than a bit piercing. There’s not even a trace of that problem on this Pentatone release. I did a comparison of a few of the Bruckner works on this recording with those on the hänssler Classic recording, with Marcus Creed and the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart (part of hänssler’s SWR music series). This is another recording I love, and I picked it for comparison because it’s also recorded in multi-channel (as a physical SACD). Of course, it has Bruckner’s E-minor Mass on it, instead of the Michael Haydn works. And the works on the hänssler recording are also performed and recorded wonderfully (with a bit more sound in the surround channels). But, if forced to make a choice between the two, I’d pick this Pentatone album for its even closer to perfect choral balance and even more tactile sound quality. In a way, we’re spoiled these days!

Philipp Ahmann seems to have considered every aspect of interpretation of these Bruckner works, with the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir producing a total achievement in terms of intonation, balance, dynamic range, nuance/color, and shaping of the phrases. In the two tracks which include trombones (Inveni David and Afferentur regi), those instruments are balanced perfectly, and almost sound like natural extensions of the choral texture itself. Outstanding!

In Wilson’s overview, he observed that the Michael Haydn works on this album sound “well ahead of their time”, and I couldn’t agree more. A particularly striking example of the composer’s musical prescience is the first of his two settings of Christus factus est, which contains a remarkable soprano entrance at the interval of the ninth, so similar to the signature usage of that interval Bruckner employs in his own extraordinary Christus factus est. It’s almost as if Michael Haydn were extending musical style 80 years into the future, albeit without quite as much of Bruckner’s chromatic anguish. Even from the beginning of this Michael Haydn setting, one is struck by the seriousness of purpose coming through, something I did not expect given my familiarity only with a couple of the composer’s symphonies.

In Michael Haydn’s other setting of Christus factus est, we hear him making impressive use of opposing soprano/alto and tenor/bass divisions of the texture. It’s interesting that neither Joseph Haydn nor Mozart wrote a lot of unaccompanied choral music, so this in itself adds interest in that we hear Austrian religious a cappella music from the later eighteenth-century courtesy of these superb Michael Haydn works. In the booklet notes for this album, Markus Schwering makes the point that Bruckner surely would have been familiar with Michael Haydn’s church music, and, once having heard these Michael Haydn works, it certainly doesn’t seem fanciful for us to imagine a tributary of musical descent from Michael Haydn to Bruckner.

At this point (before the end of this review), I feel I must interrupt the musical discussion in order to relate the unusual way in which Pentatone makes the various quality levels of their downloads available. There are three levels: high quality (16-bit CD equivalent, WAV format, two-channel), premium quality (24-bit stereo or surround), and master quality (1-bit stereo and surround). Notice that master quality is stereo AND surround, and the reason for this is that what you download is not the playable dsf files, but the iso “container” file, which includes both the stereo and multichannel formats in the same download. In most situations that I know of, you cannot play an iso file directly, and must convert the iso file into its component dsf files. Most people will need additional software to accomplish this (as I did). Pentatone evidently prefers for its customers to download the iso file, because it apparently results in a quicker download.

This was my first time dealing with an ISO file, and it took me a while to obtain the conversion software and to get the hang of using it. So although the download itself went perfectly smoothly, it took another half hour to convert the file into a usable (i.e. playable) dsf file type. Ultimately, it’s perhaps not a big deal, but if this sounds a bit too complicated, the dsf files are available directly at the Nativedsd site for most of the Pentatone titles. Or one could simply choose premium quality over master quality. (But in this case, you won’t be getting the same format as the Pentatone master — to some listeners, this makes no difference, and the price for premium is less.)

Getting back to the composers, my understanding is that a monument was erected to Michael Haydn in Salzburg fifteen years after his death, in 1821, such was his fame and renown. Mozart didn’t get his monument in that city until 1841! Not to disparage Mozart here, but the splendid choral music heard on this recording makes one aware of just how accomplished a composer Michael Haydn could be and how it’s been our loss that his choral music has not been better known (I suppose, outside of Austria!) up until now.

Yes, come for the Bruckner, but, by all means, stay for the Michael Haydn! This is an incredible release.

Chris Salocks

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Graduale: Locus iste, WAB23 (1869) [3:07]
Offertorium: Inveni David, WAB19 (1868) (with 4 trombones) [2:42]
Graduale: Christus factus est, WAB11 (1884) [5:39]
Offertorium: Afferentur regi, WAB1 (1861) (with 3 trombones) [1:55]
Hymnus: Pange lingua, WAB33 (1868) [5:02]
Graduale: Os justi, WAB30 (1879) [4:23]
Motette: Ave Maria, WAB6 (1861) [3:33]
Hymnus: Vexilla regis, WAB51 (1892) [4:47]
Graduale: Virga Jesse, WAB52 (1885) [4:12]
Johann Michael HAYDN (1737-1806)
Graduale: Christus factus est (from In Cœna Domini ad Missam, 1796), MH628,2 [4:26]
O vos omnes (from Responsoria in Sabbato Sancto), MH278,5 (1778) [2:39]
Ecce quo modo moritur justus, MH deest [6:56]
Graduale: Christus factus est, MH38 (1761) [4:43]
Salve Regina, MH deest [3:35]
Tenebræ factæ sunt, MH162 (1772) [4:02]

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