Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart

The 2017 Salzburg Festival has begun, and I opened my festival-going with a Bruckner mass for a Sunday morning.  Bruckner’s Mass #2 was a personal work – although he was well into his forties when he composed it, he had only recently begun writing larger works and had not yet left his job as the cathedral organist in the provinces to begin his career Vienna.  

The mass, for choir and a limited wind ensemble, opens with clear inspiration from the 16th-century master church composer, Palestrina, who had entered mystic legend as the man who had saved music from a papal ban and was a particular favorite of Bruckner’s then-boss, the Bishop of Linz.  But by the time he reached the middle Credo section, Bruckner had found his own idiom, transcending music in the 19th century as Palestrina had done three hundred years before.  A brief return to Palestrina in the Sanctus led to a search for chromaticism in the winds, moving around their accompaniment of a chorus harking back to traditional form.  The devout Bruckner had scored a triumph, which would help propel his career outside the Church.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra performed with distinction in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, under the baton of the rising young Lithuanian star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, demonstrating a mastery of both idioms reflected in the work: the traditional polyphony of Palestrina and the superimposed chromatic experimentalism of Bruckner inspired both by his predecessor and by his own piety.

The second half of the concert worked less well.  Schubert‘s Stabat Mater, composed for a Church commission when he was 19, set not the Catholic Latin liturgical work, but rather a German-language poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock inspired by the Catholic work but reworked into a German Protestant vision.  Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church rejected Schubert’s work.  That it also went unperformed elsewhere during his lifetime may represent that it’s not actually very good.  Derivational of both Haydn and Mozart, it fails to match the quality of either, and also lacks spirituality in the way Bruckner’s deceptively simple music did.  Three soloists known primarily, appropriately enough given the composer, for singing Lieder joined orchestra and chorus: Christiane Karg, Martin Mitterrutzner, and Michael Nagy, and all excelled.  No, the failure of the work was not due to the performers, but really to the work itself.

Gražinytė-Tyla then went directly with no pause (indeed, while Schubert’s Amens were still floating in the room) into the final work, Mozart‘s short Ave Verum Corpus.  Although brief, it had just enough notes, and while Mozart had long since left the Church in spirit (if not officially), he captured the necessary simple and straightforward spirituality, in the same manner as the hymn to Isis and Osiris in his opera Zauberflöte. This very personal spirituality was admired by, among others, a young Anton Bruckner, and therefore served as an appropriate bookend for the morning’s program.

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