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Hyperion Records

CDH55277 - Bruckner: Mass in E minor
Wiesbachhorn Mountains, Tyrol, Austria.
Power Pix
(Originally issued on CDA66177)

Recording details: April 1985
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: June 2007
Total duration: 53 minutes 7 seconds

'One of the most beautiful recordings of a choral masterpiece I have ever heard' (The Sunday Times)

'Wonderfully atmospheric. I warmly recommend this. Best of the Month' (Hi Fi News)

Mass in E minor
Kyrie  [7'56] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [6'44] LatinEnglish
Credo  [10'50] LatinEnglish
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Bruckner’s three mature Masses, in D minor, E minor, and F minor, were written between 1864 and 1868, after his seven-year period of grinding study with Simon Sechter, during which he composed very little. When he eventually plunged into composition again (he was now in his forties), Bruckner had consolidated his skills, and the D minor and F minor Masses show a maturity based on the Austrian Classical tradition. The E minor stands apart; it uses a wind band instead of the Classical orchestra, and it is clearly influenced by a study of early counterpoint, especially Palestrina’s. Of the three Masses it is the ‘purest’. It also looks to both past and future in a way the others do not.

At this time of his career, Bruckner’s sense of movement in his large-scale music reflected the Classical era; the Masses in D minor and F minor (as well as a less characteristic earlier one in B flat) are modelled on the symphonic Masses of Haydn and Mozart, with Beethoven and Schubert looking on. Bruckner had not yet explored the vast, slow timescale of his later symphonies. He had begun to discover Wagner, who had found a way to create musical processes slow enough to accommodate stage drama, and Bruckner was to become the first and greatest composer to apply such a timescale to purely instrumental music. (This is the only respect in which Bruckner is a ‘Wagnerian’ composer.) But in their sense of movement, the works of the 1860s—two symphonies (Nos ‘0’ and 1) and the three great Masses—do no more than hint at a new road, though they all have potent individuality.

The E minor Mass of 1866 was revised in 1882, the version recorded here. Bruckner’s lifelong addiction to revision, under pressure from his well-meaning but mistaken Wagnerian friends, is one of the sadder stories of music, but the Masses did not suffer seriously from it; although there are inauthentic scores, Bruckner’s own revisions are plainly advantageous. The E minor Mass received improvements that cannot be compared with the disastrous meddling inflicted by the distracted composer on its contemporary the First Symphony in 1890–91. In his symphonies Bruckner had entered a world few people (and sometimes not even his own great mind housed in a naive personality) fully understood, while the Masses could be related to familiar norms.

The revisions of detail in the E minor Mass do not alter its nature, its fine balance between forward and backward views. The concern with slow, floating counterpoint, while it refers to Palestrina, yet anticipates the deliberation of Bruckner’s own later processes, and the work conveys a sublimity inaccessible to its companions in D minor and F minor, admirable though they are. This can be felt at once in the opening Kyrie, largely unaccompanied except for the intermittent use of horns and trombones. Long suspensions and clear harmony create a sense of space. In the central section, ‘Christe eleison’, there is more movement, and a climax; then the Kyrie returns, this time to make its own climax before fading into vaulted heights.

The Gloria and Credo, on the other hand, are essentially Classical allegros with the contrasts of tempo and style dictated by the text. For the most part Bruckner is revelling in the athletic energy familiar to his great predecessors Haydn and Beethoven, but with textures simpler and more spare and rhythms blunter and more naive. Both movements are in C major and contain central contrasts, the Gloria having a quiet section at ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ with typical horn phrases, and the Credo a simple but profound treatment of ‘et incarnatus est’ and ‘Crucifixus’, a stream of perfectly formed, dignified melody of great beauty. The Gloria ends with a short but trenchant chromatic fugato on ‘Amen’, and the Credo (whose main theme anticipates strikingly the sturdy power of the Scherzo of the Eighth Symphony of more than twenty years later) reaches its apex in a broad and mighty cadence.

It is in the Sanctus that Palestrina’s influence (in the form of a quotation from the Missa brevis of 1570) is clearest. A two-part canon is enveloped in eight-part counterpoint as a great crescendo is built. The whole movement lasts only a few minutes but has a power of suggestion out of all proportion to its dimensions; such a slow crescendo as this begins some of Bruckner’s greatest symphonic movements, and the tribute to Palestrina is also a glance to the future, not only Bruckner’s own, but to such things as the magnificent opening pages of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony.

The gentle and subtle Benedictus is in full sonata form, its development deeply modulated and its coda a bright burst on ‘Hosanna in excelsis’. The final Agnus Dei delivers the customary threefold prayer, each time as a crescendo, the last quietened to make way for the hushed ‘dona nobis pacem’, perhaps the most beautiful music in the the whole work, which is without doubt the deepest and most concentrated of Bruckner’s Masses.

The fine motet Libera me, for choir with three trombones, cello, double bass and organ, was written in 1854. Although this was before his long period of study with Sechter, Bruckner was no beginner; he was thirty, with plenty of experience of church music behind him; the story that he did not become a proper composer until he was forty is a myth. As early as 1849 he had produced a beautiful and individual little Requiem that ought to be better known than it is (it is recorded on Hyperion CDA66245), and his talents had already been recognized in his own environment. This Libera me is simple and clear; it contains no elaborate counterpoint, but its part-writing is excellent, as is the calculation of sonorities. It has the solemn dignity befitting a funeral piece, and its middle section expresses the fear of judgment with considerable power and economy.

The two Aequale, for three trombones, are the earliest music on this record, belonging to 1847, when Bruckner was twenty-three. The second of the two pieces lacks a bass part, which has been supplied by Hans Bauernfeind. The unpretentious and serious harmonies could have been devised for a funeral or memorial service, and need the kind of spacious acoustic we find on this recording.

Robert Simpson © 1985

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