Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Los Angeles Master Chorale Performs Massive Bruckner and Stravinsky

by Douglas Neslund

If you love your music full-born, delivered not in individual notes but in eight-part chords in a wall of glorious sound, then you were in hog’s heaven Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as our superlative Master Chorale performed Anton Bruckner’s expansive Mass No. 2 in E minor, and after intermission, his Os justi meditabitur sapientiam and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

Seldom within recent memory has the Chorale lived in the fortissimo realm of dynamics quite as much as on this occasion. The singers were obviously relishing the opportunity, and the sound produced throughout was stunning, beautiful, balanced and well-blended. If there were a fly in the ointment, it would be Disney Hall’s tendency to add sizzle when the music exceeds a mere forte, which characteristic in chamber concerts might be desirable. One wonders if strategically placed hanging banners would help mitigate that sizzle, and deliver the pure, wondrous choral banquet we have grown to expect in the Grant Gershon era.

Bruckner’s Mass was composed within the ideals of the St. Cecelia Society concept of music serving the Eucharist, not the performers. Hence, no soloists were employed. Since the premiere of the work took place al fresco, he wrote instrumental parts for wind and brass, which were overwhelmed for the most part in the Master Chorale concert. Another characteristic of the Mass was Bruckner’s alternation or combining of women’s and men’s choruses. Thus, the opening Kyrie began softly in the women’s sections, a beautiful prelude to the same material in the men’s sections. Bruckner’s music is essentially homophonic, but his striking harmonic shifts betray the first impression of a Renaissance composer and reveal his true Romantic idiom and origin.

Bruckner’s Os justi – a familiar eight part a cappella chorus in the Lydian church mode, where the fourth step of the scale is raised one-half step – begins softly, but soon builds to a tremendous pile of glorious notes suffused with chain suspensions that create ongoing tension-release cycles as it melts back down to piano dynamic. This musical idea is repeated at the motet’s ending; a good idea merits repetition! But between these mountains Bruckner seems to have lost inspiration, as the music wanders aimlessly and without memorablity.

Maestro Gershon didn’t allow applause as the final sounds of Os justi disappeared, but launched immediately into Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, one of the composer’s most-performed works. Accompanied by a large contingent of brass, woodwinds and lower-voiced strings, as well as two pianos and timpani, the Master Chorale easily handled the syncopations and irregular entrances and at times almost appeared to be transformed into another instrumental element. There is never a moment in the three movement Symphony of Psalms where one senses that Stravinsky loses a tight focus and willing invention of new sound combinations. It was an altogether lovely performance, carefully and lovingly nurtured by Maestro Gershon.

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