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Reviews

Accentus ACC 30474
26 Dec 2019

A compelling new recording of Bruckner's early Requiem

The death of his friend and mentor Franz Seiler, notary at the St Florian monastery to which he had returned as a teaching assistant in 1845, was the immediate circumstance which led the 24-year-old Anton Bruckner to compose his first large-scale sacred work: the Requiem in D minor for soloists, choir, organ continuo and orchestra, which he completed on 14th March 1849.

Anton Bruckner: Requiem

RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Łukasz Borowicz (conductor)

Accentus ACC 30474 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

On his death, Seiler bequeathed Bruckner his Bösendorfer 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 monastery.

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 für Alte Musik Berlin and four vocal soloists: Johanna Winkel (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Michael Feyfar (tenor) and Ludwig Mittelhammer (baritone). Conducted by Łukasz 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 model.

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 ‘Brüder, trocknet Eure Zähren’ (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. ‘Brüder, trocknet Eure Zähren’ 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, Tönehheld und Meister’ (Nachruf! / Trösterin 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

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