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Bruckner: Mass No. 3 in F minor - Janowski

Bruckner: Mass No. 3 in F minor - Janowski

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186501

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Bruckner: Mass No. 3 in F minor

Lenneke Ruiten, Soprano
Iris Vermillion, Mezzo-soprano
Shawn Mathey, Tenor
Franz Josef Selig, Bass
Rundfunkchor Berlin (Chorus Master: Stefan Parkman)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Marek Janowski

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Review by John Miller - May 30, 2013

Bruckner, a deeply pious Roman Catholic, wrote at least eight masses, mostly in the period of his musical studies. Three of them were for local parishes, and did not always contain the full Ordinary rubric of the Catholic Mass. The Requiem in D minor of 1849 was the first Mass which he allowed to be preserved. Three more followed, often called the "Great Masses", numbered 1-3.

Although owing much to Haydn and Mozart's Classical Masses, with special regard for Beethoven's monumental and far-seeing Missa Solemnis, most listeners would surely regard this last Mass, in F minor and dated from 1867, as deeply Romantic. The last three masses were also influenced by Bruckner's membership of the St Cecilia Society founded by Karl Proske (1794-1861). The Society's chief concern was to rekindle interest in the past, particularly the glories of the Renaissance era and notably prescribing 'a capella' choral singing, which removed instruments from church services. Thus the F minor Mass must have been for concert performance rather than liturgical, as Bruckner scored it for full orchestra. Also he set the first line of the Gloria, whereas in the 1st and 2nd Great Masses he left a gap for the plainchant line to be sung by a priest.

Janowski's new version of the F minor Mass with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande adds the work to his ongoing set of Bruckner's symphonies. Quite correctly so, since the mature Masses are regarded by musicologists as "the hall (or doorway)... to the symphonies". After his period of mass-writing, the composer dropped the mass in favour of writing symphonies. Despite the F minor Mass having origins from Bruckner's classical antecedents, the work's author is easily identified by its frequent patches of bare orchestration and much repetition of scalic motifs from the strings, together with underlying galloping rhythms, all Brucknerian fingerprints.

My reference performance of the F minor Mass has been that by Eugen Jochum, recorded in the1960’s and early 1970’s; still outstanding in its spiritual glow, sublime pacing and fervent singing. A more "modern" approach can be found in Hyperion's smaller scale and intimate recording by Matthew Best with his Corydon Singers and Orchestra. Comparing timings for each section of the Mass from Jochum and Best with those of Janowski interestingly shows a basic agreement on tempi, with the notable exception of the Credo, where Janowski and Best take just over 20 minutes, while Jochum takes no less than 4 minutes more.

Janowski's reading, although not as spiritual as Jochum's, has a compelling breadth and symphonic sweep. The Suisse Romande players take on the accompaniments of characteristically repetitive, motoric bass rhythms (and the ardent scales with which the violins garnish the texts) with all the idiomatic skills derived from their Bruckner symphonic cycle. The long-established Berlin Radio Choir, numbering over 60 members, produces a grand, internally well-balanced sound, and Janowski's four soloists, although not quite up to Jochum's stellar ones (Maria Stader, Claudia Hellmann, Ernst Haefliger, Kim Borg), are expressive, secure in pitch and work well together. Together, the whole ensemble tackles the fast and loud movements of the Gloria and Credo with abundant energy and stirring rhythmic lift, and even the obligatory fugues refuse to get bogged down. In the Credo, the choir interject cries of "Credo, Credo!", Bruckner assuring us of his own implacable belief.

There are a few disappointments. Janowski often fails to control the chorus in acceding to Bruckner's many explicit and detailed dynamic markings in his score. This is particularly noticeable in the quiet sections. The opening Kyrie, for example, supposed to be piano and pianissimo, starts off at the level of a generalised mezzo forte, where Jochum's choir are hushed as if in awe of what is to come. The Berlin Radiochoir also ignore Bruckner's marking of a diminuendo over each of the first three entries. There are also a number of occasions where soloists enter at a louder level than instructed. The most irritating example of this is in the Credo's 'Et incarnatus est', one of Bruckner's most beautiful expressions of his simple piety. The section is marked "misterioso", but tenor Shawn Mathey's golden voice is overprojected and very far from mystery. Listen to how hushed and moving Jochum's "Et incarnartus" is. Fortunately, in the final movement "Agnus dei", more care is taken over the dynamics, thus deepening the expressive lines of this wonderfully noble and lyrical music, as Bruckner comes near to writing a tone-poem.

Pentatone's fine recording provides clarity, large dynamic range and detailed internal details of scoring, with the large number of performers easily contained in the ample resonance of Victoria Hall, Geneva. This clearly outdoes DGG's engineering for Jochum, which now seems somewhat foggy and rather distant in comparison. While the Pentatone stage is quite wide, however, the back-to-front perspective is not as clearly imaged, so that I was unable to definitely place the choir, which seems to be hanging out with the orchestra. Bruckner's formidable crescendos pose great difficulties for the balance engineers, with much strenuous violin activity high above the chorus lines, and at times the choir is nearly overwhelmed by the orchestra. However, there are several passages where Bruckner deliberately (and perversely) marks the choir at a lower dynamic level than the orchestra!

Pentatone's excellent notes by Franz Steiger proffer some new research which illuminates the true genesis of this Mass and touches the matter of versions (a frequent topic where Bruckner is concerned). He goes on to present a readable analysis of the Mass's movements. Missing from the booklet, however, are the Latin texts of the Mass, with translations (there are English, French and German versions of the notes). Clearly Pentatone thinks that all its customers are thoroughly familiar with the Latin Ordinary of the Mass.

Bruckner's third Great Mass has been a favourite of mine since I was a young teenager. Despite a long allegiance to Jochum and more recently being beguiled by Best's version, I'm happy to overlook the minor flaws of Janowski's stirring and expressive reincarnation, especially in such good sound. Happily recommended, therefore.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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