Review: Bruckner Motets

Stunning performances in Bruckner’s timeless masterpieces from the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh whose voices soar magically into the vast cathedral’s acoustic.

In potted biographies of Bruckner, the motets (if they feature at all) are usually mentioned in passing as mere “church music” or demoted to the status of footnotes to his great symphonies. Some even maintain that viewed in the light of his deeply-held Catholic faith, they are an acquired taste, variously “intimidating”, “complex” and “densely textured”, and therefore should be approached only through the symphonies. What nonsense! I for one came to his symphonies by way of the motets, not the other way around. Not only are they amenable but they are both sublime and deeply moving, undoubted treasures in the choral repertoire. And they are performed here with great conviction by the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh with Douglas Ferguson in this enchanting new recording from Delphian.

The allure of Bruckner’s motets is surely in the blending of Renaissance polyphony with Romantic colouring; a modal language with nerve-tingling suspensions culminating in breathtaking resolutions. What’s not to like? Frequently performed by mature choirs with robust sopranos, are the choristers of St Mary’s Cathedral up to the challenge in these often difficult works? The answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, the purity and vulnerability of their voices adds to the awe and emotional impact of the works and it places them firmly in the context of the liturgy for which Bruckner wrote them.

This is amply demonstrated in one of my favourite tracks, the sublime Os Justi. From the beautifully controlled opening, the pacing is assured, never hurried or tarrying; the effect is so beautiful, you never want it to finish. Then in a masterstroke, just when you think it is about to finish with the antiphon, the organ unexpectedly enters at 04:20 (this is a rarely performed version by Bruckner) with the choir still in perfect pitch. Just ask any choral singer how difficult this is to pull off.

And how does the choir stand up to the combined might of the organ of St Mary’s Cathedral and the RSAMD brass? In a word, magnificently. In the robust Ecce sacerdos and the anxious Libera me, the choir blends perfectly (it’s not a contest after all) and it makes the sudden hushes all the more awe-inspiring with only the voices floating aloft in the vast cathedral’s acoustic.

With fine unaccompanied singing (Locus iste, Jam lucis orto sidere dignare and Ave Maria stand out here), votaries of the Bruckner motets will need little persuasion to buy this recording. For everyone else, a rare treat awaits them.

The album is accompanied with generous notes on the history of the works and their role in the Christian liturgy.

Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 4 stars 


Kevin Painting

Published on xx May 2016 on primephonic



Anton Bruckner,  Motets
Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Duncan Ferguson, Organist and Master of the Music

Delphian Records DCD34071