Bruckner: Mass in E minor (1882 version); Pange lingua; Motets

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COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: Hanssler
ALBUM TITLE: Bruckner
WORKS: Mass in E minor (1882 version); Pange lingua; Motets
PERFORMER: SWR Vokalensemble; Wind players of Stuttgart Radio SO, SWR/Marcus Creed
CATALOGUE NO: 93.199

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The liner notes for Marcus Creed’s latest recording mount a spirited case for Bruckner, but is it really true that ‘at the end of the 20th century even the shrewd Bruckner experts caught themselves falling for the old rhetorical slurs’? Surely the notion of Bruckner as bumbling half-wit died out half a century ago, and, at least in performance, it’s certainly not true to say that the sacred music goes ‘unchallenged and largely unexplored’. The eight-part E minor Mass of 1866 is the main work to be ‘challenged’ here, and on the whole Creed ‘explores’ persuasively. Less ‘grand’ than the F minor, the Mass is not so much Bruckner-lite as Bruckner-compact, a love letter to the Austrian Church’s dalliance with 16th-century polyphony. This Creed understands consummately, negotiating the architecture of the Kyrie with due regard to its soaring vaults and intimate side chapels. The ‘voicing’ of the contrapuntal buttressing is superb (the choral sound rich, warm and envelopingly ‘present’). But the Gloria starts over-comfortably and, after an incisive launch to the fugal Amen, it ends like someone boxing a sonorous marshmallow. And throughout the Mass, the brass-dominated instrumental ensemble is sometimes uneasily balanced with the choir (also tending to over-severity at times). More noticeable on the CD layer – was there ever a composer with more claim on the SACD age than Bruckner? – is a glaring ratcheting up of pitch at one point in an otherwise beautifully sculpted Sanctus, all of which keep Stephen Layton’s Polyphony version as ‘leader of the pack’; but like Layton, Creed also plays the ace of some exquisitely shaded motets, crowned by a beguilingly prayerful, awesomely terraced account of the Ave Maria. Blessed indeed! Paul Riley