Bruckner: Mass in E minor; Motets

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Mass in E minor; Motets
PERFORMER: Polyphony; Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
Mentioning Bruckner’s Masses to a choral director is to witness a heart leaping and sinking simultaneously. High-minded to the point of brutality, they tip their hat not a jot towards technical feasibility, yet contain undeniable moments of greatness. Two opposing choral aesthetics emerge from recordings: malleable beauty of sound or sheer vocal horsepower. For the latter approach, both the Russian State Symphonic Cappella on Chandos and the Rilling’s Stuttgart-based conglomerate choir on Hänssler Classics have something to offer, though there are drawbacks to them both: slow, stodgy tempos on the former and loss of clarity and beauty on the latter. In the opposite corner are Herreweghe and the present release. Hyperion again rewrites its own history, eclipsing the old Corydon Singers recording (more than half decent, it must be said) with this really excellent offering from Polyphony.


Of the ‘chamber-like’ versions of this Mass, Polyphony trumps all others for beauty of tone. At the end of the Agnus, where the sopranos don’t have bulk, they gleam. In the Benedictus, too, musical sense arises from transparency and intelligent shaping. Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi is excellent, too, though the sopranos need a few extra grams of weight. His trombonish texture is more engaging than Layton’s, which sometimes gives the impression that the brass are wallflowers to the choral action. If Rilling’s Sanctus has the epic qualities, and Herreweghe’s Gloria the symphonic, it is ultimately Layton who impresses with his slick, choral control. The performances of the motets are excellent, too, painting nuanced pictures of these vocally and philosophically stratospheric pieces. William Whitehead