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Not quite sublime enough

03/28/2010 -  & March 25, 2010 (München)
Ludwig van Beethoven Große Fuge op. 133
Anton Bruckner Mass No. 3 in F-Minor WAB 28

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Bernarda Fink (alto), Andrew Staples (tenor), Anthony Michaels-Moore (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Daniel Reuss (chorus master), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Daniel Harding (conductor)

(© Priska Ketterer)

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is famed for its extreme technical demands on players as well as for its introspective nature, even by the standards of his late period when he wrote his five last string quartets. It was written in 1825 and 1826, when the composer was completely deaf. The work is now considered among Beethoven’s greatest achievements. It has some similarities with Bruckner, with its frequent pauses and repeated melodies. Stravinsky said it was modern and would always be modern. Daniel Harding conducted with lashings of vigour as if to compensate for the lack of tunefulness, a mite too hard driven. This cerebral exercise in fugal writing showed off the Bavarian’s skillful ensemble to the full.

Bruckner’s Third Mass is a sublime work. Bruckner at the time was leaving provincial Linz for Vienna but suffered a nervous breakdown. Although his doctor had forbidden the writing of any music, he could not resist starting on this Mass which he completed upon his recovery. It was perhaps a prayer of thanks from a fervent Catholic for his recovery. The work is steeped in Austrian church music tradition, but is wrapped in a monumental symphonic frame. The orchestra is large, heavy with brass, and has an important function rather than mere accompaniment. Bruckner uses the same stylistic traits as in his symphonies, hammering rhythms, blocks of sound, and repeated motifs.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus sang with perfection throughout, sufficiently strong in volume, warm tone, exact intonation, careful dynamics and clear diction. Rightly, they attracted the most applause. The orchestra fared well in all movements, particularly the strings, the brass were however unlucky with some untidy entries. Anthony Michaels-Moore stepped in at late notice to replace an indisposed Michael Volle, Andrew Staples was impressive in “Et incarnatus est” whilst not as beautiful in tone as Haefliger on the famous Deutsche Grammophon recording under Jochum with the very same orchestra and chorus from the 1960s. Dorothea Röschmann’s soprano was too operatic and lacked sufficient seraphic purity, whilst Bernarda Fink’s sonorous alto did hit the mark. Sadly, the magnificent KKL “Goll” organ was inaudible.

Daniel Harding fared magnificently to keep all parts together, tempi were identical to Jochum’s, no doubt one of his reference points. Perhaps in the thrilling “Et resurrexit” he could have restrained the orchestra to allow the chorus to be more prominent. However, a first-rate performance then of a wonderful work, even if the ultimate sublime element was missing.

John Rhodes



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