The balance, precision, clarity and musicality of Robert Shaw, dean of American choral/orchestral conductors, is everywhere evident in the three works on these two compact discs. And when given Telarc's white-glove treatment in technical reproduction, they make a fine addition to the roster of recorded concert masses.
Schubert's Mass No. 2 dates to his 18th year, when he was a pupil of the able Salieri. It is a simple, melodic setting, almost transparent in its clarity, with flowing Kyrie, subdued Credo and bouncing fugal Hosannah. Perhaps the loveliest music comes toward the end with the solo trio (soprano, tenor and bass) interweaving with chorus in the Benedictus. All forces continue their quiet course to an Agnus Dei with ethereal high soprano (Dawn Upshaw), then sink away in the subdued but intense plea, Dona nobis pacem.Rather than having excerptible setpieces that stand out as such, in both these masses the soloists are integrated into the choral fabric, adding to the fluid texture of the music and the textual significance.
Schubert composed his Mass No. 6 in 1828, the last year of his life. Hence, its first performance was posthumous, a year after his death. It is a far showier mass, not because of any overt gestures from the composer, but probably just because his facility had developed so markedly. His contrapuntal writing was more authoritative, and his personality as a melodist and composer comes through even more definitively in a work even more choral, less soloistic than his second mass, though with certain romantic tendencies and flourishes.
The work is beautifully served by Shaw and his charges, who luxuriate in a long choral Kyrie and powerful Gloria, with mighty fugal exposition of the Cum Sancto Spiritu. The solo trio is again beautifully intertwined in the Et Incarnatus Est, and solo quartet in the suppliant Benedictus, leading to a glorious Hosannah. The
RECORD Agnus Dei, weighted but fast, finally finishes with skillful interweaving of quartet and chorus in the Dona nobis pacem.
Serving as soloists, often in cameo-sized roles, yet always in excellent style and taste are, besides Upshaw, soprano Benita Valente, mezzo Marietta Simpson, tenors David Gordon, John Humphrey and Glenn Siebert, and baritones William Stone and Myron Myers. Soprano Henriette Schellenberg joins Simpson, Humphrey and Myers in the Beethoven.
Everyone agrees that Beethoven's Mass in C is overshadowed by his towering Missa solemnis; what isn't? They should not be compared, for his first setting of the mass has passages of great beauty and insight, and its course is inexorable, with Beethovenesque weight, loftiness and majesty.
The mass was composed for Esterhazy, after the long reign of Haydn there. It was created under difficulties, for Beethoven was ill and slow in delivering it, and it was ill-rehearsed and a failure at its debut. Whatever the reason, somehow there is an overriding somberness about the piece, and it is uneven, sometimes soaring beautifically, but with a tendency to plod. Again the soloists are luminous in their small roles, and the choral work above reproach. The choral pieces appended to fill out the record are not the most inspired, but accord well with the spirit of the mass. Yet if I were to take my pick between the two discs, I would favor the Schubert.