Notes and Editorial Reviews
Mass in F
Offertorium in ascensione Domini.
To Sleep. I Sing of a Maiden
Stephen Darlington, cond;
Clive Driskill-Smith (org); Christ Church Cathedral Ch
NIMBUS NI 5852 (56:21
Text and Translation)
Egon Wellesz fled his native Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss (the
annexation by Hitler of Austria into Nazi Germany) and soon found himself at the University of Oxford where the post of Reader in Byzantine Music was eventually created especially for him. Yet, he had been born in 1885 in Vienna and, as a teenager, had been deeply impressed by performances by Mahler of the operatic and symphonic repertoire. A satellite member of the Second Viennese School, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Schönberg. It is amusing to note that neither the 12- tone technique nor Byzantine compositional practices reveal themselves more than in slight nuances and echoes in the current works. Wellesz’s style is highly approachable and, appreciated from 2010, only mildly chromatic.
The F-Minor Mass is the first of five settings of the Mass that Wellesz composed (the final one, the
, is also on this disc and makes an interesting contrast), and dates from 1934. It is a substantial work, running over 30 minutes. The low, somber opening (the word “Kyrie”) is handled well by the men and the sound world is delightfully alienating; it really could be from 10 years ago (a
part of Schnittke’s Choir Concerto, perhaps) though the music soon opens out beautifully and rather more tonally. We soon realize there is an organ discreetly in the mix. Although the CD notes describe the organ’s part as “important,” a sacrilegious thought kept running through my mind: What would this be like without the organ? But the organ’s very discretion ensures that its presence does not detract from the real focus of the music: the singers. The Gloria is curiously restrained—indeed the whole Mass seems to have shards of doubt running through it—while the Credo uses a procession of soloists from the choir in the middle section. Only in the Sanctus is there what might be claimed to be an Eastern influence in the melismata sung firstly by soloists then by the tutti forces; we might just be in a work of John Tavener. The Agnus Dei returns to, but amplifies, the mood of the Kyrie.
Comparing the F-Minor Mass with the
from 1963 is instructive. Unlike that other great
who settled in England in the 30s, Roberto Gerhard (though he was, of course, fleeing a rather different conflict), who continued to develop his compositional style in some remarkable works, Wellesz continued to write in broadly the same idiom. That isn’t to decry the music at all, and, if I was intrigued by the use of the word “gnomic” in the CD booklet to describe this work; in fact it turns out to be most apt. Running at under 12 minutes (the Credo is omitted), this manages to be both elliptic and more than approachable.
In writing a setting of Keats’s
(1965), Wellesz was inevitably courting comparison with Benjamin Britten, who had set the poem for tenor, horn, and strings in his
. If not as imaginative as the young Britten, the old Wellesz seems to have wanted to focus on the large-scale structure of the piece as a whole, rather than individual phrases. The piece works well, particularly as a choir cannot be as nimble on its feet as a single soloist can. The brief, but not slight, Offertorium (also 1965) describes in just more than two minutes Christ’s ascension, Wellesz using ascending phrases—obvious but effective
. I Sing of a Maiden
is a charming encore.
The Christ Church Cathedral Choir is one of the older choirs in Oxford, having been founded 500 years ago by Henry VIII and Thomas Wolsey. It is thus appropriate that it should be performing the music of a composer the university so generously welcomed more recently. As with many church choirs in the U.K., boy choristers take the top line. Whether you like this is a matter of taste (as it happens, it isn’t mine). More to the point, whether it is what Wellesz expected is doubtful, given, in particular, that the F-Minor Mass predates Wellesz’s arrival in the U.K. However, this isn’t a make-or-break point; the music goes well enough in this format though the occasional solo sounds slightly odd. I suspect that is probably an artifact of the recording, which otherwise sounds fine: clear but with some reverberation (the recording was made in Merton College Chapel, Oxford). The booklet notes by Calum MacDonald are excellent: long, learned and interesting.
Having been a choral singer in my time, I can immediately say that I would have been delighted to have been asked to perform these works. There’s nothing “difficult” for the audience—though I suspect they are tougher to negotiate for the singers than is immediately apparent. Yet Wellesz creates a consistent style over 30 years that is both individual and distinctive, even while it is familiar. The singers go for it and, apart from a few instances of slight unease, turn in compelling performances. I choose that adjective carefully; the performances aren’t just excellent, they make me want to buy copies of the disc to send to my favorite chorus masters, urging them to perform the music.
FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
Although I have been assiduously collecting the Egon Wellesz symphonies and the recent String Quartets on Nimbus it came as a bit of a surprise to find a recording had emerged of some of his church music.
Several years ago I put on a performance, with a girls’ choir, of Wellesz’s brief setting of Fletcher’s ‘See, the day begins to break’. Even so I if I had thought about it at all I would have concluded that Wellesz was Jewish and therefore did not write church music. He did however convert to Catholicism and there are, as a consequence five mass settings, the earliest and the last are recorded here.
Mass in F is big piece and as such would struggle now, even in a Cathedral setting. After all ‘modern’ worship does not like the choir to sing the Creed, although that by Wellesz is especially rapt and ‘spiritual’ reminiscent of Rubbra (also a Catholic convert). Similarly contemporary practice has turned its face against such a long ‘Agnus dei’ except while the Communion is being received. Nevertheless the Wellesz Gloria is succinct without being abrupt. The Kyrie is one of the most moving I have ever encountered, starting from a painful pianissimo opening to climax on a major chord for ‘Christe eleison’. This heart-felt plea for mercy then falls back into a quiet ending. The Sanctus has several tricky solo passages and it’s in this movement that you become more aware of the organ which has mainly acted in a supporting role upholding the pitch. In the ‘Agnus dei’ the organ is even more dominant. This lengthy setting reverts to the anguished language of the Kyrie. One is reminded that its date of composition is 1934 and its world is that of Hitler’s Germany. No wonder Wellesz prophetically repeats ‘dona nobis pacem’, never wanting to let go. It’s wonderful to hear the work on this CD in such a very committed performance.
In 1938 the composer made his home in Britain and felt an attraction to English texts. If you are familiar with the settings of the fifteenth century poem
‘I sing of a maiden’ by Patrick Hadley and Lennox Berkeley then the Wellesz will not disappoint. It is for three upper voices and, as a lover of English medieval music to which Wellesz is responding, I can’t stop playing it. Although mainly homophonic there are passing notes. The work possesses a lovely contrapuntal flow with occasional dissonances. The simplicity of the setting is most affecting and the piece should be much better known.
The motet, if I may call it that, ‘
Offertorium in Ascensione Domini’ has no opus number and is in Latin. Early Messiaen may come to mind as, in its brevity, it grows towards its ecstatic final ‘Alleluia’. Incidentally no text or translation is offered for this or for the Mass.
Missa Brevis is much more succinct than the Mass in F and is beautiful and moving. Wellesz’s life-long interest in Byzantine music - he was lecturer in the subject in Oxford for nine years soon after the war - can be felt in the homophonic sections especially in the central part of the Gloria and in the Sanctus. The melodies have an affectingly memorable quality and simplicity in many places and also a logical flow. The Agnus Dei I found particularly expressive. I can’t help but feel that the choir has tried out this Mass in an act of worship.
But it’s not just church music that Wellesz composed as the setting of Fletcher, mentioned above, might indicate. This slightly ungenerously filled CD ends with a setting of Keats’
‘To Sleep’. It seems appropriate in a way for a composer aged 80, beginning ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight’ - a meditation on sleep and death. Britten set it in the ‘Serenade’ over twenty years previously. Wellesz’s piece is demanding, as all twelve-tone works can be, but it is wonderfully and evocatively performed here. The harmonies are perfectly tuned and the style well understood with the melody line beautifully articulated. Basically quiet this work reaches a climax only to fade back into nothingness.
It’s a little curious, no matter how good the acoustic is in Merton College, that the Cathedral choir did not record this disc in their own building where I feel the voices can soar a little more effectively and where the intonation is a little less exposed. There are some wobbly moments in that regard. Even so this disc comes with a ‘highly recommended’ sticker from me as you have realized. It could be that these masses may start to find a regular home in the liturgy just as the composer would have desired and certainly as they so much deserve.
-- Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
to Sleep, for chorus & organ, Op. 94 by Egon Wellesz
Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
Venue: Merton College Chapel, Oxford
Length: 6 Minutes 39 Secs.
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