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Hyperion Records

CDA67629 - Bruckner: Mass & Motets
Ely Cathedral (detail) by Thomas Lound (1802-1861)
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2007
Ely Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2007
Total duration: 69 minutes 7 seconds


'Peace and goodwill would be the order of the day if Father Christmas could hand out to all and sundry copies of Polyphony's recording of the Bruckner's Mass in E minor. No disc I've heard this year comes near it for sheer beauty … Polyphony, whose sound is … smoothly rounded, fully blended and sumptuous … Layton produces such gorgeous sounds from his singers that the overall listening experience is infinitely satisfying … the seven unaccompanied motets are absolute gems. An ethereal account of Ave Maria has a breadth and grandeur which belies its short time-span; as the vocal lines crowd in on each other, the effect is nothing short of electrifying. And popular as it is, if there has to be a 'definitive' interpretation on disc of Locus iste, this has to be it. Put it simply, we're unlikely to hear choral singing as fine as this for a good few years to come' (Gramophone)

'This really excellent offering from Polyphony … Polyphony trumps all others for beauty of tone … in the Benedictus, too, musical sense arises from transparency and intelligent phrasing … the performances of the motets are excellent, too, painting nuanced pictures of these vocally and philosophically stratospheric pieces' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia catch the music's starkness, exaltation and mysticism as movingly as I have heard. This is a searching performance, with soft singing of awed intensity, but also an unusually dramatic one. Stephen Layton never allows Bruckner's music, even at its most unearthly, to become becalmed; and he builds climaxes of molten intensity in, say, the Sanctus, or the fervent motet Christus factus est. A glorious disc of music that strives for, and ultimately attains, a state of transcendent peace' (The Daily Telegraph)

'I wasn’t prepared for the excellence of this program … the musicianship is so sophisticated, so meticulous that it’s impossible not to get swept up in what the singers are doing … what really captures my attention is the spectrum of vocal colors these singers create in pianissimo range … Maestro Layton’s performances inspire the soul even as they break the heart with their intense beauty' (American Record Guide)

'This album finds the composer secure in his spiritual home, serving God in music transcendent. Stephen Layton's reading of the Second Mass articulates sublime, prayer-like qualities routinely overlooked and underplayed by others. The approach … is revelatory, rich in contrasts, fervent outbursts and symphonic tension … an outstanding release' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The performance is strong and characterful: beautifully sung by Polyphony and subtly, imaginatively accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia's wind band … the group sing with ravishing, lustrous tone throughout and phrase and colour magnificently. Their dynamic and dramatic range is great and tension is continually racked up under the baton of Stephen Layton, though never at the expense of vocal purity, profundity of expression or dignity of delivery' (

Mass & Motets

Bruckner’s motets are small masterpieces, containing intensely expressive harmonic writing and a sense of personal devotion within a characteristically expansive framework. The sensuous Mass in E minor recalls his great symphonies. Grammy-nominated choir Polyphony under their inspirational director Stephen Layton offers impeccable yet passionate performances on this glorious disc.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For the best part of a century, Anton Bruckner’s reputation rested almost entirely on his mature symphonies—those hugely ambitious ‘cathedrals in sound’ which still polarize opinion. But Bruckner didn’t begin to tackle symphonic form until he was nearly forty: the so-called ‘Study’ Symphony in F minor, written when he was still taking lessons in form and orchestration with the conductor Otto Kitzler, dates from 1863. This has led to an apparently widespread belief that Bruckner was a late starter. In fact he was nothing of the kind. By the time he had completed the first version of his official ‘Symphony No 1’ in 1866, Bruckner had already composed three full settings of the Mass (including the impressive Mass ‘No 1’ in D minor), a more than promising Requiem in D minor (1849), four Psalm settings and a fair quantity of short liturgical pieces, at least one of which—the seven-part Ave Maria of 1861—shows a mastery and imaginative daring that places it in the front rank of the religious music of its time.

Bruckner’s involvement with devotional music began before he had even entered his teens. His first surviving composition, a very simple—and slightly clumsy—four-part setting of St Thomas Aquinas’s Corpus Christi hymn ‘Pange lingua’, was written when Bruckner was either eleven or twelve and keen to learn as much as he could from his cousin and godfather, the organist and composer Johann Baptist Weiss. Weiss taught at a school at Hörsching, not far from Bruckner’s childhood home, Ansfelden, near Linz in Upper Austria. He is said to have had a phenomenal memory, and to have introduced the young ‘Tonerl’ (‘Tony’) to a wide range of religious music at the piano, including Masses by Mozart and Haydn’s The Creation, The Seasons and Seven Last Words—all of which left a lasting imprint. And it was religious music, rather than the symphony, that occupied Bruckner for most of his composing life. Although the production of original church works tailed off somewhat after the Mass in F minor, known as ‘No 3’ (first version 1868), there were still the magnificent Te Deum (1884) and the substantial Psalm 150 (1892) to come, plus several fine motets, culminating in the four-part Vexilla regis composed, like Psalm 150, in 1892.

All of this music can be heard as a direct expression of Bruckner’s profound Roman Catholic faith, instilled in early boyhood and nurtured during his years as a chorister and student at the great Baroque monastery of St Florian in Ansfelden. Bruckner’s faith is often described as ‘unquestioning’ or ‘unwavering’. In fact there is evidence that he was prone to doubt, especially in his last years; but his faith was clearly a vital support for him, especially after his severe mental breakdown of 1866/7—Bruckner claimed that it was composing the Kyrie of the F minor Mass that restored his sanity. Bruckner’s Catholicism was conventional by the educated standards of his time, his devotion meticulous to the point of obsession. Yet there are occasional glimpses of a more modern, ‘speculative’ tendency. Bruckner’s pupil, and later friend, Carl Hruby remembered the composer talking in a very measured and rational way about David Strauss’s controversial ‘historical’ study of the gospels Das Leben Jesu (‘The Life of Jesus’)—the work that had such a life-changing effect on the English novelist George Eliot. But if Bruckner’s religious attitude was more complex than we have often been led to believe, that in no way diminishes the central importance of his faith, nor his repeated assertion that composing was for him a true ‘vocation’—a Divine calling.

Evidence of Bruckner’s devotional attitude to his craft can be found in what many would claim as his first real masterpiece: the Ave Maria [1] of 1861. Not long after the opening the name ‘Jesus’ is heard three times in block-like chords of A major—three is, of course, the number of the Holy Trinity. Then comes some intensely expressive harmonic writing as the prayer grows more urgent and personal: ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the end of our death.’ This Ave Maria (Bruckner’s second setting of the text) was the first work he wrote after completing his exhaustive five-year postal course in harmony and counterpoint with the famous Viennese theorist Simon Sechter—which may explain the sense of new confidence and freedom in this miniature masterpiece.

Next comes the more modest but equally telling Locus iste [2], composed in1869. Locus iste had its premiere at the dedication of the Votive Chapel of the newly built Linz cathedral, in the same service as the Mass in E minor. Bruckner had been appointed organist at the old cathedral in 1856, and the Bishop, Josef Franz Rüdiger—a highly conservative but very humane man—had soon become an important artistic and spiritual father-figure. The text celebrates a sacred place: for liturgical purposes this would have been the new cathedral, but Bruckner may well have been thinking of St Florian—his true spiritual home, to which he often returned in later years (especially at times of crisis). As in the symphonies, the proportions of Locus iste are carefully calculated. Take the silence before the final ‘a Deo factus est’: where most composers would be content to put a simple pause, Bruckner preserves his proportions by carefully measuring out five beats. Elegant symmetry is as vital here as in a great medieval cathedral—or, indeed, in the chaste but reassuringly contained environs of St Florian.

It was to Bishop Rüdiger himself that Bruckner dedicated the Mass No 2 in E minor [3–8], inscribing the manuscript in his old-fashioned but strikingly beautiful calligraphy. The use of wind band instead of a more conventional orchestra with strings is unusual in itself; but it is the relationship between the chorus and the band which marks this Mass out against the major religious works of its time. In the opening Kyrie for instance the eight-part chorus is supported by horns and trombones only at a few key moments, while in subsequent movements the wind writing is often impressively stark—a far cry from the sensuous warmth of Schubert’s last two Masses (which Bruckner nevertheless admired). Bruckner was partly inspired by the ideas of the Cecilian Movement, founded in Germany that same year (1869) by the priest and composer Franz Xaver Witt. Witt wanted simplification and devotional purity, reacting against what he found to be an increasingly worldly tone in Rococo and Romantic church music. Witt’s ideal was the Renaissance master Palestrina, whose best-known liturgical works had already caught Bruckner’s attention. The flowing counterpoint of the Kyrie, and the radiant long crescendo that opens the Sanctus, have a flavour of Palestrina heard through Brucknerian ears—indeed the opening of the Sanctus is based on a figure taken from Palestrina’s Missa brevis.

Elsewhere however the choral writing in the E minor Mass can be remarkably exploratory, as in the wide-ranging modulations of the Gloria’s central ‘qui tollis’ (discreetly supported by the wind), or in the gorgeous slower ‘et incarnatus’ section of the Credo—in such passages Bruckner’s devotion takes on a more sensuous (or even sensual) quality than Witt and his followers were normally prepared to tolerate. The harmonies at the opening of the Benedictus are also strangely searching and ambiguous—a strong contrast with the warmly affirmative A flat major in the equivalent section of the F minor Mass. In the final moments of the Agnus Dei we find some of Bruckner’s most beautiful ‘transfigured’ chromatic writing—strongly echoed in the closing ‘quod est super omne nomen’ of the motet Christus factus est. Heard in the context of the Mass as a whole there is no suggestion of worldly impiety about this music, but of heart-easing resolution. As in the great symphonies, the final cadence in E major seems perfectly timed: another testimony to the depth of Bruckner’s feeling for musical proportion.

Bruckner strengthened this sense of architectural balance in his revision of the E minor Mass in 1876—the year in which the two other numbered Masses and the third symphony were similarly, as he put it, ‘structurally tidied up’. In the case of the E minor Mass the revision did a great deal to clarify the musical thought. The emendations made later in 1882 appear to have been relatively slight and of a more practical nature. Nevertheless the first performance of this final version in the old Linz Cathedral in 1885 appears to have been a particularly moving event for Bruckner. The conductor Adalbert Schreyer remembered how the composer ‘stood near the organ with his eyes lifted up ecstatically to the vaulted roof, his lips moving in silent prayer’. It is in this final version that the E minor Mass is performed here.

Christus factus est [9] appeared in 1884—the same year as the Te Deum for chorus, four soloists, organ and orchestra. Harmonically this is more exploratory than the Mass in E minor, with some extraordinary modulations following the words ‘mortem autem crucis’ (‘even the death of the cross’)—a test of any choir’s security of pitch. More than any of Bruckner’s great motets, Christus factus est follows an almost symphonic path of motivic and harmonic development—a striking parallel to Christ’s journey of ‘obedience unto death’. All suggestion of triumphalism is avoided in the final reference to the ‘name which is above every name’.

Bruckner’s last church composition, Vexilla regis [10], dates from 1892, four years before the composer’s death, when the ailing Bruckner was struggling to complete his ninth and last symphony. The last thing Bruckner needed at such a time was distraction, yet he insisted that the urge to compose Vexilla regis came ‘straight from the heart’. The use of the old church ‘Phrygian Mode’ (the white-note scale on the piano beginning on E) harks back to Bruckner’s not uncritical interest in the aims of the Cecilian Movement; but the purity of the mode is soon coloured by breathtaking chromatic shifts, and the security of E as the tonal centre is only just recaptured at the end of each verse. The aspiring cadential figure at the word ‘prodeunt’ (‘advance’) near the start echoes Wagner’s use of the old Lutheran ‘Dresden Amen’ in his last opera Parsifal, whose first performance in 1882 had made an enormous impression on Bruckner. (A similar echo can be heard on strings alone near the start of the Adagio of the ninth symphony.)

Extreme contrast is provided by Os iusti [11], composed in 1879 for Ignaz Traumihler, choirmaster at St Florian and a devoted Cecilian. On one level this is the most ‘purist’ product of Bruckner’s engagement with the principles of Franz Xaver Witt. Set in the old Church Lydian Mode (the white-note scale based on F) throughout, it contains no sharps or flats, no ‘dominant’ sevenths, and no six–four (second inversion) chords—the last two anathematized according to the supposed ‘rules’ of Palestrina’s time. The miracle is that it all sounds so effortless and natural, without so much as a hint of ironic or sentimental archaism. The central section (‘et lingua eius’) comprises some of the most serenely beautiful counterpoint in all Bruckner. At its conclusion, Os iusti dovetails skilfully into a plainchant ‘Alleluia’ celebrating the ancient wisdom of the Church.

The symphonic Bruckner again finds echo in miniature in Virga Jesse floruit [12] of 1885, especially in the magnificent climax that builds in imitative sequences on the phase ‘pacem Deus reddidit’—another very Brucknerian transformation of the ‘Dresden Amen’ from Parsifal. Harmonically this motet journeys far, until the coda stabilizes in E major, culminating in a surprisingly jaunty sequence of alleluias from the tenors (the last marked ‘falsetto’—possibly a whimsical representation of the reconciliation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the text).

For the Pange lingua [13] of 1868 Bruckner returned to the text that had inspired him as an eleven- or twelve- year-old. In character it is relatively simple and hymn-like, with little rhythmic counterpoint; but the exploitation of the colours of the Phrygian Mode to match the dark mystery of the text is very telling. Astonishingly, when Witt published Pange lingua, he took it on himself to ‘correct’ the music extensively, in the process softening some of its most expressive dissonances—to Bruckner’s extreme displeasure. Needless to say, it is the unbowdlerized version that is performed here.

Stephen Johnson © 2007

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