Music review: Bruckner mass, sung by the Danesborough Chorus

27 July 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears musical forces massed from Milton Keynes


BRUCKNER’s choral music seems well served by choirs across the country. His shorter anthems, Ecce sacerdos magnus, Os justi, or Locus iste, are each moving masterpieces. Yet it is strange how neglected his larger, orchestrated choral works are. They include an attractive early Requiem; a magnificent Te Deum (to feature at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival this year); a Psalm 150 of equal interest; an early and unnumbered Missa Solemnis (1854), never done; and three Masses from the 1860s — huge works that were later revised.

One large choir that has taken splendid notice of these undoubted masterworks is the Danesborough Chorus, from Milton Keynes, under the notable 40-year leadership of Ian Smith, also director of Bedford Choral Society. Their summer concert in the Victorian-Edwardian St Mary’s, Woburn, was unusual in taking on the challenge of the mightiest of all his choral works, the Mass No. 3 in F minor.

This is actually the third time that the choir has performed it. Previously, it also gave Bruckner’s E-minor Mass, focused on voices, woodwind, and brass. Mass No. 1, in D minor, which scarcely ever surfaces, was performed a year ago, resplendently, by Felsted Choral Society, in Essex (Arts, 26 May 2017).

The impressively disciplined Danesborough forces seemed to bring all the right characteristics to this noble Grosse Messe, accompanied by the highly proficient Milton Keynes City Orchestra, who prefaced the Bruckner with a gripping reading of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, the “Italian”.

This performance of the Mass was gripping, too. The falling, pleading Kyries already anticipate Bruckner’s brilliant symphonies, on the first of which he was just embarking: the solo violin, the enticing paired flutes, and other woodwind solos, such as oboe, colour the Gloria. The ends, or final subsiding, of all these movements, which are crucial, were pulled off with phenomenal accuracy.

Bruckner scarcely lets up in the Gloria: the thrilling choral offerings — “adoramus te, glorificamus te” or “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis” — required massive stamina of the choir, which it sustained remarkably; yet the appealing soprano and mezzo solos towards the close (Alison Rose, Anna Huntley) heralded a wholly unexpected, and surely original, ending: a pianissimo preface (“Tu solus altissimus . . . cum Sancto Spiritu”) to a beguiling massed Amen, yet equally soft, scarcely breathing: one of many magical moments in Bruckner’s Masses.

The Credo alone, which begins with a wonderful swagger, alone makes it worth choral societies’ taking up this momentous work. Getting the speed is vital, both for the choir and the musical: it must not race or flag. The pacings here seemed ideal. The trombones and trumpets are needed to give real weight and excitement, but not overloading. The Milton Keynes players achieved this delicate balance.

The choir sopranos encompassed even their highest notes apparently effortlessly. The “et incarnatus” is not sung piano: Bruckner, surprisingly, maintains a solid forte, even fortissimo, till the low basses’ diminuendo for “et homo factus est”, perfectly acheived here. What follows, “Crucifixus etiam”, is, inevitably, one of the most moving passages in the whole work. Ben Thapa, clearly a potent operatic tenor, well-intentionedly overdid it. These moving words were hammered home, when they should have floated. Bruckner uses word repetition especially effectively at “Et iterum”, where one might sense his debt to Wagner peering through.

The opening Credo music is redeployed by the large chorus for “Et in Spiritum sanctum”, an awesome experience. But one of the best moments ensued, when the four soloists, including the sensitive and enriching bass Marcus Farnsworth, always perfectly balanced with the orchestra, intoned “Qui cum Patre et Filio”. “Et unam sanctam” is attractively imitated by the choir with wind and brass. The instant cut-off of the ending, as with what follows, was quite masterly.

One of the most important, engaging elements of the F-minor Mass is the initial descending interval of a fourth, later used in a range of ways (sometimes inverted), hauntingly recurring throughout, and still evident here. The Sanctus is appealing, but the Hosannas, racing upward, were brilliant and uplifting. The solos, here led by mezzo, and handsomely sung by all four, were duly taken up by choir, as in the Benedictus, abetted by the cellos, yielding to flute and clarinet offerings that reinforced a divinely sung soprano solo. Horn and oboe added their voices equally characterfully; indeed, the finessed instrumental solos were as enticing as the vocal solos.

Subtly managed dynamic shifts in the choir lent the Agnus Dei its generally soothing feel, undisturbed by a momentary forte. The spiritual ending felt relaxed and optimistic. Oboe has the very final say on Bruckner’s exotic descending motif. On the whole, there were almost no no drawbacks. The magnificence and alternate forcefulness and serenity of this performance could scarcely have been bettered. The unfailing excitement of Bruckner shone through.

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