Recommended Recordings of the Schubert Mass in A-Flat Major Reviewed

Recommended Recordings of the Schubert Mass in A-Flat Major Reviewed

Recommended Recordings of the Schubert Mass in A-flat Major Reviewed

The number of recordings of Schubert’s masses is quite small. There are few recordings of all six masses, and many are currently out of print or only available from foreign sources.

This EMI recording of all the late masses and other sacred works has a cast of world-renowned soloists, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. Indeed, it is so special that all other recordings of the Mass in A-flat major shine in a lesser light. The performance is one of careful conducting in which Sawallisch brings out all the harmonic nuance that Schubert put into the mass. Sawallisch directs his forces with careful attention to detail without being overly fussy, which would be anathema to Schubert’s direct style. His attention to the emotional soul of the piece is absolutely first rate. The performers take great care not to overshadow new melody lines as they are introduced. Choral entrances are each carefully sung so that each new melody is introduced and the previous entrance is carefully set back. It gives the fugal parts great clarity. The chorus, as with all European radio choirs, is entirely professional, and it presents a full, rich sound. There was much love and affection put into this performance. When it was first released in 1988, it was part of a major collection of Schubert’s music. It was re-mastered in 1999.

Artists alphabetically: Araiza, Francisco; Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Dallapozza, Adolf; Donath, Helen; Fassbaender, Brigitte; Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich; Popp, Lucia; Sawallisch, Wolfgang; Schreier, Peter

The Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus under Helmuth Rilling have given many fine choral recordings from almost every period of music, including rarely recorded or performed works. This recording is my second choice and compares favorably to the Sawallisch recording. It does not have the stellar soloists, but they are all very good. The chorus gives a very crisp performance of the work. Only in the fugal section would I have preferred a little more definition, but this is quibbling. The choir is smaller that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus, so it has a more intimate sound. And the sound is excellent. The romantic sweep of this performance is wonderful.

Artists alphabetically: Brown, Donna; Groop, Monica; Oregon Bach Festival Choir; Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra; Rilling, Helmuth; Taylor, James; Volle, Michael

On this recording, Bruno Weil gives us a straightforward performance, clean and clear. The recording uses the Vienna Boys Choir instead of women. Boys’ voices just do not have the emotional impact of adult women. The singing of the soloists, including the two boy soloists, is excellent. The choir gives good definition to Schubert’s overlays of melodies. Weil is the conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival, and I expected more emotional impact from him. He seems to treat Schubert not as a romantic composer, but as a baroque one. In some circles, however, this CD is a legend.

Artists : Bruno Weil (Conductor), Viennensis Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vienna Boys' Choir, Arno Hartmann, Stefan Preyer. Uses uncredited boys for the soprano and alto solos.

This recording features a solid performance of the mass. Conductor Philippe Herreweghe takes the tempi faster than other conductors. The soloists are excellent except the bass, who gives a rather flat performance in both pitch and energy. The choral work is crisp without being brusque. I would have liked a little more romantic sweep to the music. The faster tempi do not lend themselves to that.

Artists: Anna Korondi, Anke Vondung, Andreas Karasiak, Kay Stiefermann, Champs Élysées Orchestra and Chorus

(No set of choral reviews would be complete without examining the contribution from John Eliot Gardiner. This is the Gardiner of earlier days. The recording is only available from used sources. It is too fast, albeit clear and concise, and without any sense of emotion. It is definitely not recommended. The emotional soul of piece is lost in clarity. The mass is treated like baroque piece of music. The bottom line: don’t bother. This is strangely sad, because his performance of the Schicksalslied is absolutely top-drawer.)

- Recordings reviewed by John Chase, a bass with SF Choral. Mr. Chase has broad experience as a freelance music critic, through Creative Arts International, for which he has reviewed performances up and down the West Coast for the past ten years. He also contributes, both as editor and writer, to various music publications and schools. Recently, he was contributing writer and editor to a large work in the Czech Republic entitled “Dvořák: Master of the Melody,” in celebration of Antonín Dvořák’s 170th birthday in 2011. Mr. Chase has a minor in Music History/ Musicology from the University of Michigan, with additional graduate coursework at Duke University.