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Schubert's Last Mass

Available from Amazon
Schubert, Mass in E-flat Major, D. 950, S. Gritton, P. Stephen, M. Padmore, J. Gilchrist, M. Rose, Collegium Musicum 90, R. Hickox

(released on April 29, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 0750

Online score:
D. 950 (piano reduction)
How did Franz Schubert, who lived such a short life, compose so much music? That impressive works list includes six settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, and like more of the Schubert corpus than one might be willing to admit, not all of it is really that memorable. It is certainly beautiful enough (and recorded often enough), in more or less the same style as the Mass settings of Mozart and Haydn, and Schubert's melodic genius rarely lets him down. Schubert was neither particularly religious nor particularly interested in the Catholic liturgy, and he did not even always set the complete text of some sections of the Mass. That cavalier handling of texts that are necessary to a celebration of the Mass is an extension of a certain Viennese easy-handedness that can be observed in the Masses of Haydn and others, who telescoped the longer texts of the Gloria and Credo, by having different choir sections sing overlapping parts of the text simultaneously.

That occasionally perfunctory character of the Schubert Masses aside, they make for good listening. The British ensemble Collegium Musicum 90 brings together two score players on period-appropriate instruments, under the most capable hands of veteran conductor Richard Hickox, for the last and best of the Schubert Masses, no. 6 in E-flat major, which the same forces presented at the 2007 Proms. The work is a good example of Schubert's daring approach to extending the harmonic spectrum: the opening progression of the Sanctus is particularly striking -- E-flat major, B minor, G minor, E-flat minor (see video embedded below, with the opening at a grand, glacial tempo). The choral sound here is not always the most refined -- no separate chorus is credited, and the liner notes do not list any names or numbers of the choristers. However, the soloists all sing beautifully, and the sections of the Mass for vocal soloists, especially the "Et incarnatus est" section of the Credo, are among the best music in the score. Although the singers follow the German pronunciation of Latin, the style of performance strikes me as thoroughly English. Captured in warm, detailed sound, this is worth a listen, especially at the discounted price now on offer.


Sanctus from Schubert's Mass in E-Flat (Hofburgkapelle Wien, 1976)


Anonymous said...

For comparison purposes, their recording of Beethoven's Mass in C has the chorus listed--8 sopranos, 5 altos, 5 tenors, 6 basses--and two of the same soloists (Stephen and Padmore). That was in 2002.

That recording was issued on Chandos' early music label, which was the first time I've ever seen that label (as opposed to HIP) attached to Beethoven.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that. It sounds like a larger chorus than that on the Schubert recording, but not by much.