A compelling new recording of Bruckner’s early Requiem

On his death, Seiler bequeathed Bruckner his Bˆsendorfer grand piano, which
Bruckner kept all his life, and upon which he composed all his subsequent
compositions; it now stands in the Bruckner memorial room of the St Florian

On 22nd November 2018, the RIAS Kammerchor performed the Requiem and Bruckner’s Libera me in F minor in the
Chamber Music Hall of the Berlin Philharmonie, with the Akademie f¸r Alte
Musik Berlin and four vocal soloists: Johanna Winkel (soprano), Sophie
Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Michael Feyfar (tenor) and Ludwig Mittelhammer
(baritone). Conducted by ?ukasz Borowicz, and employing the new Anton Bruckner Urtext Complete Edition edited by Dr
Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, this live performance has been captured – alongside
other early, funereal, choral music by Bruckner – for this recently
released recording on the Accentus label.

The Requiem was first heard on 15th September 1849, the
anniversary of Seiler’s death, with Bruckner himself playing the organ. A
scholarly article (in German, French and English) in the liner booklet by
Dr Cohrs, who is Head of the Vienna Bruckner edition, informs the listener
about the complex issues relating to the sources of the Requiem:
while Bruckner gave the autograph score to Franz Bayer in 1892, the
composer’s original parts went missing after his death, and absence led to
some inaccurate assumptions about subsequent revisions made by the
composer. Modest forces were employed at the first performances: eight
singers, including the soloists, seven strings, three trombones and organ.
This recording adopts the forces – 22 strings, horn, three trombones and
organ, and a 35-strong chorus – that were available to Bruckner for the
performances of his masses at the Hofburg Chapel at the Imperial Palace in
Vienna, where from 1878 Bruckner was organist.

If the syncopation and low, dark register of the opening bars of the
‘Requiem aeternum’ summon (sometimes almost verbatim) echoes of Mozart’s Requiem to mind, then the prevailing idiom seems to me more
consistently to pay homage to the Baroque, or at least to a
pre-Beethoven/Schubert Viennese age, though this is not to suggest that the
music is lacking in interest: there are some striking timbral glances as
the three trombones assert their robust nasal presence, for example. From
the opening bars it is clear that music’s melodiousness and straightforward
harmonic dramas would undoubtedly provide much enjoyment for able amateur
choirs, for whom this recorded performance – persuasive of tempo, vivid of
vocal colour, ever alert in the continuo – would provide an exemplary

The ‘Dies irae’ similarly echoes Mozart in its rhythmic vigour, energised
strings, thunderous bass accents and stirring choral cries, which alternate
with the solo quartet. But, however derivative Bruckner’s idiom, the chorus
here summon a terrifying forward sweep, and the urgency carries through to
solo voices – tenor Michael Feyfar’s lyricism in the short passage of recitative provides
welcome respite – and the movement between moods and groupings is smoothly
and coherently negotiated. The choral counterpoint feels more than an
academic exercise, not least because of the excitement contributed by the
string playing and the flexibility of the voices.

Baritone Ludwig Mittelhammer doesn’t quite have the solidity at the bottom
to match the organ and low strings in the ‘Domine Jesu’, but when the
chorus enter tremendous forward momentum is generated. And, the ‘Hostias’
for male solo quartet with trombones – the latter really make their
presence felt – is beautifully tuned and blended. The fugal ‘Quam olim
Abrahae promisisti’ (which follows Mozart’s formal example) is notable for
the way in which the bass line and organ embed such vigour-inspiring
foundations for the polyphonic architecture above; similarly striking is
the grandeur of the tutti cries, ‘Gloria!’, in the ‘Sanctus’, which are
further vivified by throbbing instrumental triplet quavers.

The ‘Benedictus’ for solo quartet feels especially Mozartian. The Andante marking is interpreted with sensible freedom – this is no
amble in the park, but a purposeful statement of faith – and features a
solo for horn in Bb which, Cohrs explains, the parts show was in Bruckner’s
day played on the horn by a bass trombonist. Winkel’s soprano sits
dynamically atop the solo quartet, the line inflected with lovely emphasis
and gestures, while Feyfar’s tenor responses are notably pliant. The brief
a cappella choral conclusion is honest and true, and leads into a short,
but intensely beautiful ‘Agnus Dei’, in which Sophie Harmsen’s solo mezzo
melody is full of feeling. The ‘Cum Sanctis’ makes for assertive
conclusion: all spiky strings and majestic voices.

In his seventies, Bruckner is reported to have passed judgement on his Requiem: ‘It isn’t bad!’ That probably sums it up, but this
performance is both persuasive and affecting. The Requiem lasts
just under 30 minutes, and the rest of the Accentus disc comprises smaller
choral works by Bruckner.

These include imposing works such as the Libera in F minor (Cohrs
D02) and ‘Br¸der, trocknet Eure Z‰hren’ (Vor Arneths Grab
, Cohrs G01) which were performed at the funeral rites for Bruckner’s
patron Prelate Michael Arneth on 28th March 1854. The former has
some striking harmonic nuances at the start, but lapses into rather
perfunctory polyphony, though the sense of strong belief never wavers, and
here it is followed by an Aequales in F minor – the form draws upon the
eighteenth-century tradition of performing music for three trombones and
other wind at occasions of mourning – arranged by Dr Cohrs, and standing in
for a work that the scholar believes originally followed the latter – a
substantial funeral chorus – but which is now lost. ‘Br¸der, trocknet Eure
Z‰hren’ may itself be unadventurous harmonically and formally, but it has
the beautiful directness of a Bach chorale and is sung here with genuine
commitment and drama, and it resolves with consoling softness.

Several of the works included are world premiere recordings, such as the Libera in F (Cohrs E01) which Bruckner composed in 1845 when he
returned to St Florian to become teaching assistant and organist-in-waiting
at the monastery. The truthfulness of the performance here is very
touching. Similarly recorded for the first time is ‘Vereint bist, Tˆnehheld
und Meister’ (Nachruf! / Trˆsterin Musik, Cohrs H05) for large
male chorus and organ, a work composed in memory of Josef Seiberl –
Bruckner’s friend and successor as organist at St Florian who died on 10 th June 1877 – arranged here by Cohrs for smaller mixed choir
and organ, but retaining all of the drama and passion of the original. The
homophony and unisons defy the listener to ignore their pleas, and the
sonorous organ entry expands the canvas thrillingly.

Dr Cohrs offers clear explanation regarding the performance decisions that
have been taken, and why – in the light of missing scores, and ambiguous or
contradictory extant sources – and of the circumstances of composition and
first performances. The performance was clearly an endeavour characterised
equally by scholarly endeavour and musical belief: it follows the

2018 Accentus release of Bruckner’s early Missa Solemnis

, with almost the same quartet of soloists, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp being
replaced here by Feyfar.

Borowicz and his singers and players respect the sincerity of this music.
Perhaps this disc might appeal most to those who are already Bruckner
aficionados, but anyone whose heart is touched by Bruckner’s motets will surely
find the directness of both the music and delivery undeniably powerful.
This is authentic and beautiful music-making.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Accentus ACC 30474
product_title=Anton Bruckner: Requiem
product_by=RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Akademie f¸r Alte Musik Berlin, ?ukasz Borowicz (conductor)
product_id=Accentus ACC 30474 [CD]