Bruckner and Messiaen Linked to Telling Effect

AustriaAustria  Bruckner and Messiaen: Ruth Ziesak (soprano), Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Günther Groissböck (baritone), Wiener Singakademie, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cornelius Meister (conductor). Konzerthaus, Vienna, 23.6.2015 (MB)

Bruckner – Mass no.3 in F minor


I have long thought that Bruckner and Messiaen would do well to be programmed together – at least when the length of their works permits it. Roman Catholic devotion in an increasingly secularised world, not least in musical terms, is of course an important point in common, but their frequent eschewal of conventional thematic development in favour of repetition of blocks of material suggests something more, and perhaps more surprising too. Ten out of ten for programming, then, and I am pleased to report that the performances turned out to be highly impressive too.

The very opening bars of Bruckner’s F minor Mass – grander, perhaps more grandiloquent, than its predecessors, perhaps trying a little too hard to attempt an impossible reckoning with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – showed that we were in excellent Bruckner hands with respect to conductor and orchestra alike. This might have been the opening of the first movement of a symphony, Bruckner’s preoccupying building-blocks as ever to the fore from the outset. Intriguingly, the drooping phrase-ends seemed to hint at Elgar, whose music would surely benefit from more Viennese outings (not that I have forgotten the forthcoming VPO/Rattle Gerontius at the Proms). Choral ‘Kyries’ following continued, intensified, and yet also brought major-mode hope, the Wiener Singakademie on as fine form as the ORF SO and Cornelius Meister. Günther Groissböck ‘s resounding first ‘Christe’ seemed to issue almost from Beethoven’s world, whatever the problems of Bruckner’s would-be emulation later on. This movement’s a cappella passages sounded flawless, deeply felt, before the music sank back into darkness.

The ‘Gloria’ proved equally impressive, starting out as if bells were ringing in Heaven itself. Meister’s command of rhythm and harmony seemed to me every bit the equal of celebrated past recordings, even Jochum’s. Contrast with imploring intoning of the word ‘peccata’ was telling, as again were Beethovenian parallels, not least from a gorgeous woodwind section. With that in mind, there were an appropriate sense and scale of struggle towards the close. The ‘Credo’ responded in properly titanic – symphonic – fashion, again with splendid contrast, not least in the sweetness of the violin, viola, and tenor solos (Benjamin Bruns) upon reaching ‘Et incarnatus est…’.  ‘Et resurrexit…’ sounded as a veritable earthquake, almost Bachian: certainly as powerful, if simpler, and of course with well-nigh Wagnerian means. No easy route was taken thereafter, ensuring that the victory upon ‘Et exspecto…’ inspired as if that to one of the greatest Bruckner symphonies.

The ‘Sanctus’ was grand, turning to exultance, whilst the ‘Benedictus’ exuded tenderness and warmth, especially from the outstanding string section. It had the depth of one of the composer’s symphonic Adagio movements – just as it should. Groissböck’s tonal richness was especially welcome here; alas, the shrillness of Ruth Ziesak, here and elsewhere, offered a rare blemish to the performance as a whole. Nevertheless, it was a minor blemish upon the leisurely but always-directed progress shaped by Meister. The poignant falling lines of the ‘Agnus Dei’, echoing the opening, proved equally moving, prior to a triumphant close, to which even the most hardened of Bruckner-sceptics would surely have submitted.

L’Ascension sounded different immediately, a ‘French’ soundworld – however much of a construct that might be – announcing itself unquestionably. This was also a different sort of slowness as Messiaen’s ecstatic voice began its progress, harmonies still more gorgeous, devotion still more intense. ‘No room at the inn for doubt!’ composer and performance appeared to be telling us. For me, as a sometime organist, the orchestral version still sounds as a transcription – but who cares? I certainly did not, and indeed listened with new, or at least refreshed, ears. ‘Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel’ offered opening material that was sinuous yet implacable, melismatic orchestras alleluias inveighing, perhaps even seducing. And then, awestruck, we seemed to approach and yet to remain hopelessly distant from Whomever it might be in Heaven Himself. Echoes of Ravel hinted at something sultry, although, needless to say, Messiaen’s eroticism remained of a very different nature. This, I know, is the Messiaen some find difficult or impossible to take, but not I. Swooning Alleluias were heard from the next movement’s ‘trompette … [et] cymbale’. Orchestra and conductor kept rhythms tight, without precluding occasional relaxation. Again, the sonority sounded convincingly Gallic. More importantly, there was a true sense of cosmic drama, perhaps even of an unintentionally comic variety when the cymbals clashed in almost Hollywood-like climax. Ensuing counterpoint issued forth with genuine panache. The final ‘Prière du Christ montant vers son Père – the first piece of Messiaen I played, all too many years ago – was taken very slowly, as it must be. Soaked in ecstatic vibrato, this really seemed to capture something of the almost-beyond. Moulded exquisitely, the movement nevertheless retained surprising, refreshing simplicity in a model account.

Mark Berry

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