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Egon Wellesz: Choral Music

Audio Samples

>Wellesz, Egon : Mass, for chorus & organ in F minor, Op. 51
>Wellesz, Egon : I Sing of a Maiden, for chorus & organ
>Wellesz, Egon : Offertorium in Ascensione Domini, for chorus & organ
>Wellesz, Egon : Missa Brevis, for chorus & organ, Op. 89
>Wellesz, Egon : To Sleep, for chorus & organ, Op. 94

Album Summary

>Wellesz, Egon : Mass, for chorus & organ in F minor, Op. 51
>Wellesz, Egon : I Sing of a Maiden, for chorus & organ
>Wellesz, Egon : Offertorium in Ascensione Domini, for chorus & organ
>Wellesz, Egon : Missa Brevis, for chorus & organ, Op. 89
>Wellesz, Egon : To Sleep, for chorus & organ, Op. 94
Performer Composer

Notes & Reviews:

A Catholic convert from Judaism, Egon Wellesz composed a significant amount of sacred music including five masses, two of which--the first and the last--feature on this disc. Wellesz's operas of the 1920s contain a significant amount of virtuoso choral writing, and this quality carries over into his church music, although on the whole they are written in a simpler, more traditionally tonal idiom.

"Egon Wellesz fled his native Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss (the annexation by Hitler of Austria into Nazi Germany) and soon found himself at the University of Oxford where the post of Reader in Byzantine Music was eventually created especially for him. Yet, he had been born in 1885 in Vienna and, as a teenager, had been deeply impressed by performances by Mahler of the operatic and symphonic repertoire. A satellite member of the Second Viennese School, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Schönberg. It is amusing to note that neither the 12- tone technique nor Byzantine compositional practices reveal themselves more than in slight nuances and echoes in the current works. Wellesz's style is highly approachable and, appreciated from 2010, only mildly chromatic.

The F-Minor Mass is the first of five settings of the Mass that Wellesz composed (the final one, the Missa Brevis , is also on this disc and makes an interesting contrast), and dates from 1934. It is a substantial work, running over 30 minutes. The low, somber opening (the word "Kyrie") is handled well by the men and the sound world is delightfully alienating; it really could be from 10 years ago (a recherché part of Schnittke's Choir Concerto, perhaps) though the music soon opens out beautifully and rather more tonally. We soon realize there is an organ discreetly in the mix. Although the CD notes describe the organ's part as "important," a sacrilegious thought kept running through my mind: What would this be like without the organ? But the organ's very discretion ensures that its presence does not detract from the real focus of the music: the singers. The Gloria is curiously restrained - indeed the whole Mass seems to have shards of doubt running through it - while the Credo uses a procession of soloists from the choir in the middle section. Only in the Sanctus is there what might be claimed to be an Eastern influence in the melismata sung firstly by soloists then by the tutti forces; we might just be in a work of John Tavener. The Agnus Dei returns to, but amplifies, the mood of the Kyrie.

Comparing the F-Minor Mass with the Missa Brevis from 1963 is instructive. Unlike that other great émigré who settled in England in the 30s, Roberto Gerhard (though he was, of course, fleeing a rather different conflict), who continued to develop his compositional style in some remarkable works, Wellesz continued to write in broadly the same idiom. That isn't to decry the music at all, and, if I was intrigued by the use of the word "gnomic" in the CD booklet to describe this work; in fact it turns out to be most apt. Running at under 12 minutes (the Credo is omitted), this manages to be both elliptic and more than approachable.

In writing a setting of Keats's To Sleep (1965), Wellesz was inevitably courting comparison with Benjamin Britten, who had set the poem for tenor, horn, and strings in his Serenade . If not as imaginative as the young Britten, the old Wellesz seems to have wanted to focus on the large-scale structure of the piece as a whole, rather than individual phrases. The piece works well, particularly as a choir cannot be as nimble on its feet as a single soloist can. The brief, but not slight, Offertorium (also 1965) describes in just more than two minutes Christ's ascension, Wellesz using ascending phrases - obvious but effective . I Sing of a Maiden is a charming encore.

The Christ Church Cathedral Choir is one of the older choirs in Oxford, having been founded 500 years ago by Henry VIII and Thomas Wolsey. It is thus appropriate that it should be performing the music of a composer the university so generously welcomed more recently. As with many church choirs in the U.K., boy choristers take the top line. Whether you like this is a matter of taste (as it happens, it isn't mine). More to the point, whether it is what Wellesz expected is doubtful, given, in particular, that the F-Minor Mass predates Wellesz's arrival in the U.K. However, this isn't a make-or-break point; the music goes well enough in this format though the occasional solo sounds slightly odd. I suspect that is probably an artifact of the recording, which otherwise sounds fine: clear but with some reverberation (the recording was made in Merton College Chapel, Oxford). The booklet notes by Calum MacDonald are excellent: long, learned and interesting.

Having been a choral singer in my time, I can immediately say that I would have been delighted to have been asked to perform these works. There's nothing "difficult" for the audience - though I suspect they are tougher to negotiate for the singers than is immediately apparent. Yet Wellesz creates a consistent style over 30 years that is both individual and distinctive, even while it is familiar. The singers go for it and, apart from a few instances of slight unease, turn in compelling performances. I choose that adjective carefully; the performances aren't just excellent, they make me want to buy copies of the disc to send to my favorite chorus masters, urging them to perform the music."-Fanfare

Notes & Reviews:

Recording information: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006).



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Works Details

>Wellesz, Egon : Mass, for chorus & organ in F minor, Op. 51
  • Performer: Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
  • Notes: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006)
  • Running Time: 32 min. 19 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Written: 1934

>Wellesz, Egon : I Sing of a Maiden, for chorus & organ
  • Performer: Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
  • Notes: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006)
  • Running Time: 2 min. 23 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Form: Christmas
  • Written: 1945

>Wellesz, Egon : Offertorium in Ascensione Domini, for chorus & organ
  • Performer: Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
  • Notes: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006)
  • Running Time: 2 min. 31 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Written: 1965

>Wellesz, Egon : Missa Brevis, for chorus & organ, Op. 89
  • Performer: Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
  • Notes: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006)
  • Running Time: 11 min. 2 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Written: 1963

>Wellesz, Egon : To Sleep, for chorus & organ, Op. 94
  • Performer: Clive Driskill-Smith (Organ)
  • Notes: Merton College Chapel, Oxford (03/16/2006-03/17/2006)
  • Running Time: 6 min. 39 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Form: Choral
  • Written: 1965