At the end of last year, Brilliant Classics released a four-CD set consisting of all of Franz Schubert’s settings of the complete Mass text in Latin. This is one of their compilation projects, licensing the rights to reissue out-of-circulation recordings from multiple sources; and, because the sources vary, so do the performers. The recordings of the first four Mass settings on two CDs, all composed before Schubert had reached the age of twenty, were licensed from Readers Digest International and featured the Prague Chamber Orchestra and the choral resources of the Virtuosi di Praga. Each Mass setting is led by a different conductor, and there is very little overlap of the vocal soloists. The third CD presents the fifth mass, D. 678 in A-flat major, which was completed on December 7, 1822, a little less than two months before Schubert’s 26th birthday, but he had been working on it since November of 1819, a sharp contrast to Schubert’s customarily rapid-fire approach to composition. The recording was licensed from the Vox Music Group and also includes the D, 872 setting of the Mass text in German, which was written about five years later. These two selections were performed by entirely different groups. The latest composition in the set was the Mass setting that Schubert composed in his final year, D. 950 in E-flat major; and it was not published until December of 1865. The recording, licensed from Edel Records GmbH, presents Frieder Bernius conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Kammerchor Stuttgart, and soloists.
Posterity has not been particularly kind to these compositions. Anyone who refers casually to “Schubert’s Mass” most likely means D. 167 in G major, composed in 1815 and the second in the set of six. This is certainly an impressive piece of work, particularly when one realizes that Schubert was eighteen years old when he wrote it. (This was, indeed, one of his rapid-fire efforts, written between March 2 and March 7.) The score may not seem particularly adventurous when compared with this “final year” compositions; but the setting still offers a polished thematic vocabulary and several innovative approaches to the relationship between solo and choral voices.
On the other hand there is much to be said for D. 950 being unduly neglected. Like many of the “final year” pieces, this is music that expands into a more extensive durational framework. The overall duration is less than an hour, so one is not talking about the expansiveness of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting in B minor. Nevertheless, it is the one setting in which the “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Sanctus,” and “Benedictus” sections all have multiple movements. Schubert was not particularly religious, but one can never doubt his perceptiveness when it came to setting text of music. In D. 950 one gets the feeling that he was dwelling more on what the words of the ritual were actually saying, almost as if he felt he should give those words the attention they deserve before giving up the ghost.
Most important, however, is that this collection provides an opportunity to observe different stages of Schubert’s thought about a single sacred text, thus providing a new dimension of understanding to Schubert’s productivity as a composer.