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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2011

Only the Mass No. 5 in A♭-Major remains to be released in this Naxos cycle of Schubert’s six numbered masses. Nos. 2 and 4 were reviewed by me in Fanfare 33:5, No. 6 was reviewed by Joel Kasow in 32:1, and here we have Nos. 1 and 3.

Kasow felt that Morten Schuldt-Jensen’s reading of the great E♭-Major Mass lacked “the spirituality of the major defenders of this work, Harnoncourt and Sawallisch, or Corboz to a slightly lesser degree.” I could be sympathetic to that view, given the extraordinary character and transcendent beauty of Schubert’s final Mass setting, but the first four of Schubert’s numbered Masses, as I noted, are relatively early works, and not on as high a plane, musically or spiritually, as the last two.

Schubert was 17 when he wrote his first Mass, in F Major, presumably for a performance to celebrate the Liechtenthal church’s centenary. There is no record, however, to indicate that Schubert was commissioned to write the piece or that he was paid anything for it, a circumstance that would sadly repeat itself throughout the composer’s life. The first performance took place in 1814, and was a close-knit affair, with Schubert conducting; his brother Ferdinand playing the organ; the daughter of a neighbor and one of Schubert’s early heartthrobs, Therese Grob, singing the soprano solos; and the composer’s proud teacher, Salieri, in the audience.

Even in this, his first setting of the Mass, Schubert omits the words et in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam from the Credo, a practice he would follow in all of his subsequent Mass settings. It was certainly not customary for composers to drop this all-important clause; Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven didn’t and neither did Bruckner. Moreover, omission of said clause, which is absolutely central to the profession of belief in the unitary Church, would instantly render such a Mass unfit for liturgical use. Yet, as a detailed San Francisco Symphony program note by James M. Keller points out, “this deviation certainly didn’t prevent Schubert’s early masses from being sung at his own parish church in Liechtenthal.”

Different theories have emerged, none persuasive. One of them is that Schubert was expressing his contempt for organized religion. If the omission hadn’t come until the late masses, this theory might be more plausible. But it’s unlikely that a 17-year-old boy who had been brought up as a churchgoing Catholic would have thumbed his nose at the Pope so early. To the contrary, I should think that setting out to prove himself in the writing of his first Mass Schubert would have gone to extra lengths to impress the Church officials by following the liturgy to the letter.

A second theory, even harder to fathom, is that being unfamiliar with the Latin language, Schubert was somewhat careless if not casual in his settings of the text. If that were the case, one would expect random results in each of the masses, but that’s not the case. The same clause is omitted from all of the masses, which points to the opposite of accidental, deliberate. Furthermore, according to Keller’s note, in the E♭-Major Mass (No. 6), Schubert doesn’t stop at the et in unam sanctam omission. He excises three other phrases from the approved Credo: “Patrem omnipotentem,” “genitum, non factum consubstantialem Patri,” and “Et expecto resurrectionem.” This last clause (“I look forward to the resurrection of the dead”) in fact is excised not just from the E♭-Major Mass, but interestingly, from all the masses except for the No. 1 on this disc. These omissions were no accident, but the why remains a mystery.

The Mass No. 3 in B♭-Major followed a year later in 1815, right on the heels of its more popular sibling, the G-Major Mass (No. 2). If one had no knowledge of the intervening No. 2, it would be tempting to regard No. 3 as a step forward in Schubert’s progress. After all, that’s the way things are supposed to go, each new work exhibiting greater confidence and advancing skill. But confidence and skill are no substitute for inspiration, and the fact is that the G-Major Mass is a flash of genius and a sublimely beautiful work. Compared to it, the B♭-Major Mass (No. 3) sounds like a step backward. The score drops the trombones, but other than that the orchestration and general tenor of the work are similar to No. 1.

The two Schubert masses on the current CD are the least-often performed and recorded of the composer’s six, and not without good reason. Frankly, they sound closer in style to the masses of Haydn, which would not be a bad thing if they possessed Haydn’s jubilant choruses and exalted solos, but they don’t; and at the same time they don’t evince that special, uniquely Schubertian voice that manifests itself in the Mass that’s sandwiched between these two.

Performance-wise, I’m not as positive about this release as I was about the last one. It may be the recording’s fault that the choir sounds muddy and its diction mushy. But it’s not the recording’s fault for the squeaky, choked sound of soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund’s delivery. For these two masses, there’s not a lot of choice. This is not terrible, by any means, but it’s not as good as I’d hoped based on the prior release.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, March 2011

These are very fine performances…reminiscent of what you might hear at a really fine church in Germany or Austria….beautifully done and deeply satisfying.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David Vernier, January 2011

It’s impossible to connect the composer of Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Die Winterreise (1827) with the creator of these Masses, which Schubert wrote in his late teens. The master melodist, the unsurpassed musical evocateur of German Romantic poetry is nowhere in evidence—and we may credit that to the fact that they are youthful works and that they are tailored for specific church ritual. Indeed, they are functional, faithful in form and style to conventions long-established for works in the genre by composers such as Haydn and Mozart. And yet, unlike Schubert, those latter geniuses usually found a way to infuse even such formalized liturgical creations with moments of characterful originality.

Schubert’s Masses are conceptually straightforward—and in style, the music is very much of its time, exceptionally well crafted, refined and conservative in harmony and treatment of thematic ideas. And while there’s nothing here to particularly challenge either experienced singers or attentive listeners, the music is nothing if not very pleasant, very easy on voices and ears, and happily for the church congregation, never boring.

It helps that Schubert adopts the technique of breaking up the Gloria and Credo movements into sections—and zips through the oft-dreaded Credo in both Masses without muss or fuss. There are several moments in the F major work that are more than a little reminiscent of Mozart’s Requiem, and you might think of Haydn in the B-flat major Mass Kyrie—but Schubert also adds his own touches: a lilting dance at the beginning of the F major Mass Credo, a vigorous fugal opening to the Gloria—and overall devises a setting that’s vibrant and uplifting and free of affectation.

The B-flat Mass shows deft use of soloists, who are not isolated but are skillfully integrated into the choral/orchestral structure. Again, there’s not much of notable melodic interest or inventive thematic development, but the young composer’s command of his material—listen to the exciting conclusion to the Gloria and continued momentum in the opening of the Credo—and his facility for keeping things moving is impressive.

Of course, these impressions are brought to us through the excellent performances of Morten Schuldt-Jensen and his Immortal Bach Ensemble and Leipzig orchestra. Schubert is fortunate to have such well-practiced, enthusiastic advocates for these rather minor works—their solid ensemble singing and richly-colored orchestral sound certainly give these Masses more substantial presence and expressive impact than we remember from other performances and recordings. I never was a fan of these works, but I have to say that I truly enjoyed this disc and these performances. Recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Two Mass settings from the teenage Schubert point to a great composer still in the making. At the age of eight he had been introduced to sacred music when enrolled as a choirboy at the local parish church, and there received some musical instruction to hold him in good stead when installed in the choir of the Imperial and Royal Chapel. He remained there until he was fifteen, and it was at that point that he appeared to have started writing sacred works that would punctuate the rest of his life. Both of the present scores are in the traditional six sections with parts for six soloists. Haydn seems to have been the general inspiration, the works are both lyric and generating energy in some of the major choruses, each section quite short in the context of mass settings that were to follow. There is also much beauty, as you will find, for instance, in the Benedictus of the first mass scored for four solo voices. Even at seventeen he must have had the big ideas that his works would one day be performed in major churches, the first mass calling for an orchestra containing pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings and organ. That he seldom uses their full strength shows some lack of the techniques of orchestration. Music quickly flowed from him the Third Mass completed only sixteen months later. Stylistically nothing had changed, apart from the added weight of texture. At times the Immortal Bach Choir sounds short on numbers and you have the feel that the orchestra is pulled down in volume to take that into account. The solo team are good throughout, and in particular the Norwegian soprano, Trine Lund. At budget price a desirable release.

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