This is a very special recording.
Charlotte Gardner 2007
Whilst many would deny the need for a religious faith in order to compose powerful religious works (e.g. does Faure's Requiem really suffer from him being an atheist?), there can be little doubt that Bruckner's strong Catholic faith produced some of the most wonderful music in the 19th century sacred choral repertoire. Polyphony and Stephen Layton have chosen to record his Mass No.2 in E minor, which is sandwiched between seven of the motets including "Ave Maria" and the atmospheric "Os iusti", and the sound they make is simply wonderful. This CD can't come recommended highly enough.
The disc opens with "Ave Maria", and the ethereal performance is as near to perfect as you could imagine ever hearing. Layton appears to have followed the 'very slow' marking in the original score rather than the Andante which appeared in subsequent ones, and the effect is that the opening "Ave Maria"s feel as though they're suspended in air. However, what really marks this out as a disc to savour is not just the use of tempo and dynamic but the crystalline clarity of the vocal delivery, and the equal balancing of vocal parts, i.e the choir works more as an orchestra of equal sections, rather than letting the soprano line dominate. This quality is particularly noticeable in the homophonic opening notes of "Locus iste". The sopranos do merit a special mention for their lightness of vocal attack, particularly in "Christus factus est" which has tuned many a treble into a belter. On the climactic, fortissimo, "quod est super omne nomen", their top A is merely brushed in such a way as to leave you wanting to press the rewind button to experience it again and again. Gorgeous.
Moving on from the motets, the Mass, with its unusually sparse instrumental scoring and use of wind band rather than conventional orchestra, is beautifully sung and sensitively accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia.
This is a very special recording. Don't just take my word for it, though; go listen for yourselves.