Bruckner: Mass in E minor & Motets (CD Review - American Record Guide, 2007)

I’ve had nothing but good things to say about Polyphony in works by Rutter, Whitacre, and maybe a few others. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the excellence of this program. Bruckner, of course, is grandly symphonic even when he’s not writing symphonies; and his motets and masses are no exception. Polyphony, you’ll recall, is a co-ed British chamber choir, with accents on both “British” (clarity above all; bright, white soprano tone) and “chamber” (intimate in scale all the way). How do these attributes mix with some of the most expansive writing in the sacred choral canon? The answer is, very well indeed. The musicianship is so sophisticated, so meticulous that it’s impossible not to get swept up in what the singers are doing.

The Sanctus of the Mass is spun out like 19th Century Thomas Tallis, with the English vocal style acting as a catalyst for the success of the conductor’s approach. What really captures my attention is the spectrum of vocal colors these singers create in pianissimo range. Rarely do you hear gradations of softness so fraught with expressive possibilities. Those of us who’ve warbled through our share of ‘Virga Jesses’ and ‘Os Iustis’ over the years will marvel at what these singers accomplish in these familiar motets.

Could I imagine a darker, more massive choral sound in some spots? Yes. Can the sonorities become a bit metallic when the women hit the stratosphere? Yes, again. But I wouldn’t want to part with these. Jochum’s integral set of choral Bruckner is still the coin of the realm, but Maestro Layton’s performances inspire the soul even as they break the heart with their intense beauty.

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