EGON WELLESZ: Mass in F, Op. 51; I Sing of a Maiden; Offertorium in Ascensione Domini; Missa Brevis, Op. 89; To Sleep, Op. 94 – Christ Church Cathedral Choir/ Stephen Darlington, director – Nimbus 5852, 56:21 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
My only knowledge of Egon Wellesz, Austrian-born British composer and musicologist was from his important work on Byzantine Chant and theory. I knew he was a composer but never had heard any of his music. Since he was perhaps Arnold Schoenberg’s first pupil you might think that all of his music is in that vein, but Wellesz never, aside from his earliest work, embraced fully the Schoenbergian mode of composition, always falling into a tonal spectrum even when using the serial technique. The music on this disc will not alienate anyone. His complete works include nine symphonies and a number of string quartets and other pieces, plus an array of choral music that proves surprisingly engaging and quite moving, medieval in spirit and intimately devotional.
The two main works here are his masses, Opuses 51 and 89, his first and last issues in this genre of which there are a total of five. Wellesz was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism and threw himself into the sacred arena with all of the zealousness typical of converts. Both pieces are glowingly reflective and immensely impressive in terms of choral sonority. The two short anthems I Sing of a Maiden (for unaccompanied female voices) and To Sleep, a wonderful setting of a John Keats poem from 1819 each enter into a rarified realm of powerful expression, the former a Christmas carol while the latter had already been set by Benjamin Britten in his Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings. The contrast is illuminating—Britten achieving a lithe expression while Wellesz revels in intense twelve-tone harmonies that nevertheless bring out the true nature of Keat’s words.
The short Offertorium followed the Op. 89 mass, and is without opus number. All of the music here is sung to perfection by Darlington’s forces in well-captured sound that is quite unlike the 25-year old Nimbus of yesteryear with all of its reverberation. [But that was due to the UHJ Ambisonics format, which became excellent surround sound with proper decoding, or even a single speaker in the rear hooked to the + terminals of your amp…Ed.] This disc is a real stunner and will probably take you by surprise as it did me.
— Steven Ritter