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.