Schubert: Mass In C Major, Mass In G Major / Schuldt-Jensen, Immortal Bach Ensemble

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SCHUBERT Mass No. 4 in D, D 452. Mass No. 2 in G, D 167. Deutsche Messe, D 872 Morten Schuldt-Jensen, cond; Immortal Bach Ens; Leipzig Chamber O NAXOS 8570764 (61:38)

This is a follow-up to Naxos 8570381, which contained Schubert’s great E?-Major Mass, D 950 (No. 6), his last, coupled with the Stabat Mater in G Minor, D 175, and performed by these same forces. Joel Kasow did not care much for the earlier release, calling the performance “perfunctory” in a Fanfare 32:1 review. He felt that Morten Schuldt-Jensen’s reading of the score “lacked the spirituality of the major defenders of this work, Harnoncourt and Sawallisch, or Corboz to a slightly lesser degree.” Not being familiar with any of Kasow’s notable mentions, I’m unable to comment; but of the three I do have—Robert Shaw with his Atlanta forces on Telarc, Claudio Abbado with his Vienna contingent on Deutsche Grammophon, and Charles Mackerras with the Dresdeners on Carus—the only one I would recommend would be the last-named. But my reasons are not relevant to this review since we’re discussing different works.

The first four of Schubert’s numbered masses are relatively early works, the G-Major dating from 1815, the D-Major from a year later. Of course, in Schubert’s case, age is not a reliable measure of his musical maturity. In 1816, at the age of 19, nearly two-thirds of his life was already over. Comparing his output of masses to his symphonies, it might be useful to say that in terms of musical development and sophistication his first four masses are analogous to his first six symphonies, and that just as the “Unfinished” Symphony of 1822 marks a significant turning point in Schubert’s symphonic writing, the Mass No. 5 in A? of the same year marks a departure in his writing of sacred choral music.

The Mass No. 2 has about it the sound of a wide-eyed innocent. There is something especially precious in the prettiness of its Kyrie and Credo movements. Compared to the aforementioned Shaw recording on Telarc, Schuldt-Jensen’s reading does seem a bit on the swift side. But in this blissful and ingenuous work, I’m not sure the accelerated tempo is deleterious. Slowing it down can have a cloying effect, so I rather like this performance, which is clear-eyed and straightforward. The choristers enunciate clearly, sing in tune, and have plenty of heft and body for the weightier passages.

Much of the wide-eyed innocence has disappeared a year later in the D-Major Mass (No. 4), which is scored for a larger instrumental ensemble and is more serious in tone. If only a few seconds longer in duration than the G-Major Mass, the D-Major is a bigger-boned and heavier-textured work, more in the style of Haydn’s late masses. Again, I like the clarity of diction and transparency of voicing, both choral and orchestral, that Schuldt-Jensen brings to the score. In any case, pickings are a bit slimmer for the D-Major Mass than they are for the G-Major, though Sawallisch, mentioned by Kasow in connection with the E?-Major Mass, can be heard in the D-Major as well as in a budget twofer on EMI. For the period-instrument crowd, there’s a Sony Vivarte recording with Bruno Weil leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Chorus Viennensis. And for those whose taste runs to boy trebles and altos in place of female voices, there’s George Guest with the Cambridge St. John’s College Choir and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Decca.

The so-called Deutsche Messe , D 872, is one of Schubert’s last sacred works, and due to the circumstances of its commission, quite possibly one of the least inspired and least interesting things he ever wrote. But listeners may at least take comfort in its “divine length,” all 24 minutes of its homophonic, hymnic monotony. The commission came from a Professor J. P. Neumann of the Polytechnic School of Vienna, the churchman who had previously provided Schubert with the libretto for Sakantala , an opera that never fully materialized. The texts for the Deutsche Messe are Neumann’s, and his request to Schubert was that the score be as musically simple as possible so that it could be performed by amateurs. Schubert discharged his duty accordingly, providing what sounds like a succession of German Protestant church hymns. The booklet provides only the titles and tempo indications for each of the nine movements, but not the full texts or translations.

Schubert wrote a large volume of sacred choral music, so it cannot be dismissed as an insignificant or occasional interest on his part. Yet with the exception of his two late masses, his sacred works have not been as widely embraced as have his songs, orchestral works, and chamber music. So, if you are just now beginning to explore this area of Schubert’s output, the new Naxos release is a modest enough investment for getting started. The G-Major Mass from the pen of the 18-year-old composer is one of his loveliest creations, and well worth getting to know.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570764

  • UPC: 747313076475

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Franz Schubert

  • Conductor: Morten Schuldt-Jensen

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Immortal Bach Ensemble, Leipzig Chamber Orchestra