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Geohominid, March 2010

Schubert had first-hand practical experience with Austro-Viennese sacred music during his time as a choral scholar at the Vienna Stadtkonvikt (Imperial Choir School), where he would have sung in Masses by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Eybler. Even as a 17 year-old, he had the maturity to work out his own views on religion, and although outwardly pius, he bitterly opposed the dogmatism and institutional strictures of the clergy.

Significantly, he omitted the words "et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam ("and one Catholic and Apostolic Church") from the Credo of each of his six Masses as well as several other short excisions - including "I believe in the resurrection of the dead" (only found in the first Mass). He was fortunate that because of the previous relatively relaxed reforms of the Austrian Church by Emperor Joseph II, such liberties with the Mass texts were not expressly forbidden. Although the clergy often grumbled about the young composer's non-conformity, his freedom with the texts did not prevent liturgical performances of at least the first four masses, which were presented at Schubert's own parish church and others in the city with considerable popular acclaim.

The first four Masses were written between 1814 and 1816, with a simplicity and directness which reflected their modest parish settings. They are for male voice choir, with an orchestra of local musicians and soloists drawn from Parish middle classes (such as Theresa Grob, the young soprano singer with whom Schubert fell in love). The A flat major Mass, D. 678 was, however, begun in 1819, at a period when he was re-evaluating his use of musical forms and entering his mature period of lieder-writing (including the Unfinished Symphony and the Trout Quintet). Together with the final Mass in E flat major, the A flat Mass is of a much larger scale than the previous set of Masses, equivalent to the Catholic Missa Solemnis category, lasting over 50 minutes and with a richness of form and harmony so far unprecedented in his sacred music. He laboured on the work for many years, longer than the time taken to write the first four Masses, and considered it one of his best compositions.

Schubert made a second version of the mass in 1823 (the version recorded here), which he submitted to the Imperial Chapel for permission to perform it at the Chapel and to dedicate it to their Royal Highnesses. This was a preliminary to his seeking a position as Kapellmeister, but his hopes were dashed as the permissions were refused, the possibility of a permanent position was lost and the work was never performed in his life-time.

Martin Haselböck, greatly experienced in interpreting the Viennese classics, has assembled his own period-instrument orchestra, the Wiener Akademie, the stellar Tölzer Knabenchor and a fine group of soloists. The vibrant sound of the boys, especially the open-throated, bright sound of their trebles, is of course the kind of choral sound which Schubert would have required. The solo quartet, however, make somewhat more operatic sounds, despite their parts being relatively straightforward (and sometimes limited; for example in the Credo they only surface in the final "Amen" fugue).

Haselböck firmly has his eye on the dramatic passages which Schubert so cunningly engineered in this splendid masterpiece. The narrow-bore trumpets and trombones accompanied by hard-stick drumming raise the emotional temperature considerably in the climaxes, and just as you think that the Tölzer boys are singing at full throttle, their trebles find another gear and soar above the mêlée quite thrillingly. The great set piece sections of the Gloria and Credo sound truly magnificent, with buoyant rhythms and brisk tempi propelling the music along with unflagging energy, conviction and fervent splendour.

String basses and cellos share a single line in the score, together with the organ, which is not given a separate part. In fact I was unable to verify if the Musikverein organ was actually in use, but there is certainly plenty of rhythmic extended bass. In quieter moments, the rustic sounding woodwind, especially the smoky bassoons and nasal oboes, nicely underpin the poetic lyricism of Schubert's colourful setting, and attractively anoint the vocal solos.

The recording is of a 2008 live radio concert by ORF (Austrian Radio) from the Grosser Saal (Great Hall) of the Musikverein in Vienna (the very Society of Friends of Music which counted Schubert as a member)...Despite the long reverberation time, the superb articulation of the Tölzer boys (and the soloists) makes the texts clear...It is rare to find a recording of a Schubert Mass with a boy's choir and period instruments…Nevertheless, after listening several times with increasing pleasure to Haselböck's noble performance, which unequivocally demonstrates the power and inventiveness of the Mass in A flat, I certainly recommend that Schubert-lovers give it an audition.

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