The stars aligned on Friday night at St. Paul Cathedral for an evening of stellar music-making. Seventy-nine-year-old German conductor Helmuth Rilling, one of the leading interpreters of German choral music for almost 60 years, led VocalEssence in works by Bruckner and Mendelssohn.
The main work was Bruckner's Mass No. 2 in E minor, sung by the massed chorus. Rilling was the ideal man to conduct it. Though most known for his interpretations of Bach, he also had a significant role in reviving the rarely sung choral works of Bruckner, which deserve to be heard.
"Music should never be merely comfortable," Rilling famously said. "It should reach deep down inside [people], forcing them to reflect." This performance embodied that.
Bruckner was one of the most pious of all composers, and the mass expresses that faith. It was written for a space similar to the cathedral, with its eight-second reverb. Rilling conducted with great expansiveness, sometimes pausing and allowing the sound to swirl about the space.
He organized the singers into three choirs to enhance that quality of resonance. The chorus sang with all the authority of Rilling's experience.
The mass has a unique orchestration: winds and brass with no strings. And Bruckner doesn't use the orchestra traditionally, as continuous accompaniment. Much of the mass is sung a cappella, with the instruments used to punctuate climaxes.
The program began with Bruckner miniatures, four motets, settings of liturgy or scripture passages. The first three were a cappella, showing off the brilliant tone and clarity of harmonies of the Ensemble Singers.
For the final work, the choir was accompanied by three trombones and organ, creating a sense of pomp and majesty.
The first half concluded with two motets by Mendelssohn. These lacked the profundity of the Bruckner. But they are charming and sweetly melodic pieces and well worth the hearing.
Rilling betrayed little of his age on the podium, conducting with passion and great wisdom. It is to be hoped that this won't be his last visit to town.