Schubert Mass in E flat/Richard Hickox

0 of 5 stars

Mass in E flat, D950

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Padmore & James Gilchrist (tenors)
Matthew Rose (bass)

Collegium Musicum 90
Richard Hickox

Recorded 26 & 27 July 2007 in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: April 2008
Duration: 53 minutes



Schubert’s settings of the Mass texts have often been overlooked, so this new addition to the meagre handful of current catalogue entries is very welcome.

A man of faith, albeit unorthodox in nature (he habitually omits certain passages of the texts to which he can’t personally subscribe), Schubert evidently continued to find new musical challenges in such a task: his six settings span the whole of his (short) composing career. The first four are essentially works of juvenilia, charming but unremarkable.

Of the last two, the one in A flat, which dates from 1822, the same year as the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony – a period when Schubert was forging his mature voice. Finally, he returned to the Mass text in the last year of his life, completing the one in E flat five months before his tragically early death in 1828.

Anyone expecting the groundbreaking dramatic flare of Beethoven’s contemporaneous “Missa solemnis” will be disappointed; and Schubert has often been criticised for his relatively unaccomplished contrapuntal writing. But there is much more to the monumental “Mass in E flat” than chocolate-box beauty, and it receives a vibrant, sympathetic reading from Richard Hickox with the forces of Collegium Musicum 90.

In common with other early-Romantic settings (including “Missa solemnis”), the opening ‘Kyrie’ evokes a tranquil mood of genuflection, perfectly captured by Hickox with deft handling of the melodious ebb and flow. Unusually, Schubert scores the whole opening movement for chorus (eschewing the traditional hand-over to soloists for a more intimate ‘Christe eleison’), allowing us to savour the superb, well-nuanced singing of the chamber-sized choir (although there is a full list of the orchestral players in the booklet, there is no similar listing for the choir).

The soloists, a well-blended quintet of strong voices, do not enter until the ethereal ‘Et incarnatus est’, which begins with a beautifully floating duet from Mark Padmore and James Gilchrist, later joined by the sumptuous mezzo of Pamela Helen Stephen. Here, and in the characteristically Schubertian melody of the ‘Benedictus’ (which also features Susan Gritton and Matthew Rose in radiant voice), Hickox’s accompaniment is sensitive but never sentimental.

The vivid sonorities of the well-played ‘period’ instruments help bring the music alive, and Hickox makes the most of the work’s many dynamic contrasts, especially evident in the Brucknerian ‘Sanctus’. The spine-tingling opening of the ‘Agnus Dei’ is highly effective, the chilling bray of natural horns piercing the solemn chorus-cries for mercy (one of the work’s most adventurous passages, with unexpected harmonic shifts jolting the relentless, slow-driving tread).

Elsewhere the dramatic ‘Domine Deus’ recalls the intensity of the first movement of the ‘Unfinished’; and Hickox and company do their best with the uninspiring material of the grand fugues that end the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’. A flowing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ provides a serene conclusion.

An essential purchase for Schubertians, this well-recorded release also offers much to delight and surprise anyone less familiar with Schubert’s sacred music, and stands out as a clear front-runner in the less than crowded field of recordings of Schubert’s final Mass setting.

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