While religious convictions are not necessarily a prerequisite for composers of sacred music (the agnosticism of Vaughan Williams was no barrier to his Mass in G minor nor Fauré’s atheism to his Requiem), there is little doubt that Bruckner’s Catholic faith was the creative stimulus behind some of the most sublime choral music of the mid to late 19th century. His preoccupation with church music traverses an early version of Pange lingua (1835) to Vexilla regis (1892), on the way encompassing at least eight masses, two requiems and forty shorter works, mostly setting liturgical texts.
Standing apart from his two orchestral masses, Bruckner’s Mass in E minor (1866) was written for the unusual combination of eight-part choir and an ensemble of fifteen wind instruments, its scoring reflecting the circumstances of its first performance in the square outside Linz Cathedral. The work’s blend of Renaissance polyphony, archaic yet dramatic, and contemporary harmonic language, both direct and expressive, produces an atmosphere of rare timelessness.
In an already crowded market, this new issue, and the Mass in particular, is especially welcome for being sung by an all-male choir with trebles on the top line. It’s something of a rarity, as I’m unaware of any other recording by a collegiate or cathedral choir to tackle this infrequently performed work. It’s certainly an ambitious enterprise for these twenty choristers (of whom six here are probationers) and fifteen choral scholars (4,4,7), who manifestly overcome potential balance issues with the admirable players of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. Then, there’s the capacity required to sustain Bruckner’s soaring phrases which the trebles achieve with ease, their unflagging energy and freshness of tone a delight throughout.
As the final recording project of Sir Stephen Cleobury made only a few months before his death on St Cecilia’s Day 2019 (having held the position of Director of Music at King’s for thirty-seven years), his decision to perform the most spiritual of Bruckner’s masses is deeply felt, and his response one of heartfelt sincerity. The disc’s handsome artwork and fulsome booklet comes with a specially commissioned appreciation of Sir Stephen and detailed programme notes by Dr Martin Ennis. Cleobury would no doubt be proud that amongst the numerous recordings of the Mass, there are three directed by King’s alumni – Matthew Best (Corydon Singers), Marcus Creed (SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart) and Stephen Layton (Polyphony). Each of these accounts is impressive in different ways – so too this new recording.
Cleobury’s enthusiasm for Bruckner (cultivated since his school days) is matched by the energy and fervour of the boys, amply demonstrated in the burning intensity of Ave Maria. Elsewhere, tempi tend to be on the brisk side, but Ecce sacerdos magnus grips from the first declamatory bars, dynamics finely controlled, trombones and organ adding jubilation and trebles responding with startling agility to their octave leaps. Tota pulchra es is no less theatrical, the Virgin Mary vividly conveyed as the ‘glory of Jerusalem’. Stamina is also not in short supply either in the flowing if hard driven Virga jesse floruit. Locus iste flows along pleasantly, but at this tempo there’s little emotional depth, a quality not lacking in the warmth of Christus factus est. That said, I missed the timbre of alto choral scholars (sung here by trebles) for the high entry at ‘quod est super omne nomen’, yet the music’s trademark dignity and stature is unmistakable.
These qualities are present in the Mass in varying degrees: its six movements are fastidiously shaped and, in terms of tempo mostly well-judged. Generally, it is the more dynamic movements where the choir are most convincing. Phrase patterns in the ‘Gloria’ are rhythmically taut and wonderfully hearty, the choir clearly enjoying crisply delivered wind and brass interactions. Its fugal ‘Amen’ is splendidly spirited. Likewise, there’s plenty of momentum in the ‘Credo’ with an electrifying ‘Et resurrexit’ – the grandeur of Bruckner’s conception gloriously realised.
By contrast, the ‘Kyrie’ lacks nobility, its forthright tempo denying any sense of poise. (Compare the intensity of Creed’s forces for Hänssler Classic or the ‘millpond stillness’ from Valeri Polyansky and the Russian State Symphonic Cappella for Chandos.) The ‘Sanctus’ is a rather determined affair; but rippling woodwind figuration will bring a smile to the more persuasive ‘Benedictus’. Bruckner’s ecstatic vision that is the ‘Agnus Dei’ generates a magnificent account, boys superbly rising to the occasion, and crowning a highly commendable performance.
‘Ecce sacerdos magnus’, Mass No.2 in E minor, ‘Tota pulchra es’, ‘Virga jesse floruit’, ‘Ave Maria’, ‘Locus iste’, ‘Christus factus est’; Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor), Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Henry Websdale and Dónal McCann (organ scholars), Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble.
CD (HYBRID SACD) – KGS0035 [57:06]