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Felsted braves Bruckner Mass  

26 May 2017

Roderic Dunnett hears a seldom-performed stunner dusted off


A portrait of the composer Anton Bruckner by Hermann von Kaulbach in 1885

A portrait of the composer Anton Bruckner by Hermann von Kaulbach in 1885

FELSTED CHORAL SOCIETY, in the north-west of Essex, takes a pride in seeking out unusual reper­toire. Among its coups have been two works by George Dyson: Nebu­chadnezzar, one of only two revivals of that work in the past ten years, and Agincourt, a work that this was the only choir to revive in 2015, for the battle’s 600th anniversary. Its exhumation of another oratorio, Ruth, by George Tolhurst (1827-77), once unkindly described as “the worst oratorio ever”, proved, I gather, rather successful.

Their Bruckner revival recently in Felsted School Chapel was an eye-opener. His First Mass, in D minor (1864), is a work that choral societ­ies generally ignore; but it is fun and challenging to perform.

Anton Bruckner, organist of St Florian’s Monastery, south of Linz, in Upper Austria, first essayed large choral works in 1848-49, with an attractive but rarely heard Requiem. There followed the sorely over­looked Missa Solemnis in B flat (1854). In contrast, his formidable Te Deum (to be performed next Sunday in the Barbican Hall by the LSO and Chorus under Bernard Haitink, and on Sunday 10 Decem­ber by the St John of Jerusalem Fes­tival Chorus, in Hackney), Psalm 150, and third Mass, in F minor, have all (like his motets) captured concert-planners’ imagination.

His three main Masses (no.2, in E flat, omits strings) date from the 1860s, when he was just turning to symphonic composition. It cer­tainly shows here, in the resplendent D-minor, a magnificent setting, as re­­cordings testify, with all of his hallmarks. It seemed like a case of “Spot the symphony,” so robust and ex­­pressive was the playing of the Felsted society’s orchestra, con­ducted discerningly by Roger Lawrence.

The Kyries have extraordinary violin surges, eerie brass, finely drawn out individual instrumental lines, and touches of near-dissonance, and feature a typically plangent clarinet link connecting Christe eleison” to the concluding Kyrie”. This starts serenely, goes on to chromatic shifts, and employs some delicious, finessed decoration, especially descending scales for the two flutes.

The Gloria opened with a com­manding bass cantor, the conduc­tor’s son, James Lawrence (equally assured in launching the Credo). Here, striding double bass and the general massiveness of the sound recalled the great French choral works of Cherubini, Gossec, Méhul, and Le Sueur. At the “Domine, fili”, the choir sounded ethereal, though perhaps just a little too loud, coun­tering trombone com­ments, then flute. The Gloria cul­min­ates in a big tutti at “cum Sancto Spiritu”, then long extended fugal Amens, which confirmed just how spirited and carefully re­­hearsed the main choir was. The whole impact by now had become explosive.

The first lines of the Credo con­firmed the unity of the choir, and balance was particularly good. It was a really full sound, later trans­muted into something atmospheric, over a curious bass ostinato. Now we really heard Bruckner the symphon­ist. “Et incarnatus” is long drawn out, and almost pastoral, after a striking key shift: sublime, enraptured, sus­pended in feeling; “Passus, et sepultus” featured aston­ishing stillness, a total suppression of animation, and languid repeti­tions of “Passus”, linked on by woodwind and then trombone.

It is riveting stuff. Lawrence saw to it that the work felt ideally paced, driven, with beautifully, shrewdly worked lurches in tempo and subtle dynamic shifts — witness the sud­den, unexpected pianissimo at “simul adoratur” — which the choir intently and obligingly followed to the letter. The basses were impress­ive near the Credo’s end; Bruckner’s Amen” here, by contrast, was suc­cinct and brief.

It all hung together splendidly. Long descending scales reach be­yond an octave, a Brucknerian feature that many would recognise. The Sanctus has something of Liszt at his most elevated about it. An alto semichorus launched the Benedic­tus, expressively, and the cellos like­wise, while the tenors’ sound was more than acceptable. There are trumpet blasts midway (seven brass were deployed). After an almost operatic Waldmusik (sounds of na­­ture) transition, the final Osanna” was prefaced by another overawing pregnant pause.

Sopranos excelled in the “Mis­erere” of the Agnus Dei; the orches­tra is busy, possibly reverting to something akin to the work’s start; the canons were strange and min­imal, and the violins were, per­haps, just a little too loud and acidic. The shift to D major for “Dona nobis pacem” is dazzling.

What an experience it was! Law­rence and his choral society have set an example that others will, I hope, have the courage to follow.

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