Bruckner: Mass in E minor & Motets (CD Review - The Observer, 2007)

This recording done in the resonant acoustic of Ely Cathedral has much to recommend it. Polyphony is one of the finest ensembles of its type, now about 20 years on the scene, and Stephen Layton needs no introduction to choral aficionados. There are a number of recordings of this mass on the market, as it is unusual in that it alone of Bruckner's canonical three uses only wind instruments as accompaniment. This gives a very medieval, cool sound to the work no matter how it is performed.

One of the classic readings is that of Eugene Jochum with his Bavarian Radio forces, recorded in the early sixties and seventies. Those beautiful accounts are still available in a DGG Originals two-disc set that remains mandatory for any serious collection, though the sound is a little thin now in some spots (DGG sound is almost always thin from those days), but it does have a more red-blooded, Germanic feel to it that surely Bruckner would appreciate. I also find this same sort of sentiment on the more modern, and superbly recorded reading by Frieder Bernius, the Deutsche Blaserphilharmonie, and Kammerchor Stuttgart on Sony (1992, and great sound). But Layton offers an even cooler sound, sparse and ascetic though by no means unemotional, and perhaps closer to Bruckner's ideal than his actual experience gave him. The singing cannot be bettered, and Hyperion long ago learned how to temper those cold and nasty Middle Ages English cathedrals.

This recording comes generously coupled with seven of the composer's motets, including the first real masterpiece, the Ave Maria of 1861, and going up to the Vexilla Regis of 1892, only four years before his death. A lot of people sit happily with their recordings of the forth, seventh, and ninth symphonies, ignoring the others and blissfully unaware of the choral music. This certainly puts one on the fast track to completely misunderstanding the work of the composer as a whole, as these choral pieces and masses are essential to gain a complete picture of the man's work and its meaning.

So this is an excellent reading, not topping the two I mentioned, but easily taking its place among them.

Steven Ritter

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