This magnificent concert in the vast Abbey of the monastery at Ebrach celebrated the 25th year of the Ebrach Summer of Music. It was testimony to the extraordinary achievement of conductor Gerd Schaller whose inspiration is at the heart of the festival, and an exemplary demonstration of the virtues that have led to its increasing renown. Amongst well known works of the orchestral repertoire, the concerts have featured many works by classical and romantic composers that one rarely has the opportunity to hear, and over the past decade the works of Bruckner have also occupied a central place in the programming.

Gerd Schaller © Cella Seven
Gerd Schaller
© Cella Seven

But Bruckner's setting of Psalm 146 is virtually unknown, the score only published in an edition by Paul Hawkshaw in 1996. It is a large scale work for soloists, double choir and orchestra, an ambitious cantata lasting about half an hour. But there is no mention of it anywhere in Bruckner's correspondence, nothing in any memoirs, no information about what occasion might have led him to write it, no performance in his lifetime. And listening to it, you wonder if indeed it is his music at all, it is so unlike his later sacred choral works, much more like Mendelssohn. But it is Bruckner: we have the composition score in his hand and a fair copy with his emendations all over it, which looks to have been written in the late 1850s, a decade before any of the numbered symphonies were to appear. Obscure it may be, but it could receive no more compelling advocacy than that provided by Maestro Schaller and the choir, soloists and orchestra assembled in the abbey for this jubilee concert.

The work opens with a slow hallelujah and song of praise in hushed tones from the choir, above which the soprano soloist floats melodic phrases. It was immediately apparent what a treat we were in for, the Munich Philharmonic Choir singing with confidence and precision, the orchestral tone rich, and the soprano soloist – who was required to play a major and very challenging role in both this evening's works – sang with such glorious beauty of tone, such intelligent and expressive shaping of her words and music, that the appeal of this strangely forgotten work became irresistible. I draw attention to Ania Vegry's singing because it was especially wonderful, but the other three soloists were also first class, the tenor and bass revealed as clear, forthright and expressive singers in the recitatives that follow the opening hallelujah, and Franziska Gottwald's rich, dark alto complemented her colleagues to perfection in the Arioso. The choir storm in, singing of the greatness of God, his power and wisdom: the attack, the vigour, the sheer vitality of the performance was superb, virtues displayed to even greater effect in the extraordinary fugue that closes the work.

Two performances that I have heard in recordings gave me no indication that this could be such a moving, powerful and inspired a work as Gerd Schaller drew from these musicians.

His interpretation of Bruckner's mighty Mass no.3 in F minor was characterised by the energy and drama with which the tenets of the composer's religious faith were brought to life before us. Not merely were the quicker sections, the Gloria and parts of the Credo, performed at a lively speed and with passionate conviction, but even in the slower passages there was a sense of a surging underswell of faith anxious to assert itself, such that even in the closing Agnus Dei the aggressive rising figures that suddenly intrude in the bass line were given without compromise. In the tender Benedictus the cellos displayed a rich warm tone, and the horn and woodwind solos were exemplary.

Once again, the soloists were first class, the tenor Clemens Bieber's Et in carnatus est... deeply affecting and Ania Vegry's Hosanna in excelsis managed a joyous cry without becoming raucous, and the threefold rising and falling sequence in her final contribution to the Benedictus had a beauty beyond description. The bass Timo Riihonen's first entry in the Kyrie, a descending octave on Christe was as powerful, resonant and steady on the low note as the high, to spine-tingling effect. There were many other such splendid moments from all four soloists.

The dramatic highpoints were performed with no holds barred, especially in the Credo, in which the quiet desolation of the account of the crucifixion seemed all pervading, only to be swept to oblivion by the ecstatic excitement of the announcement of the resurrection, the splendid timpanist providing her support in a manner worthy of the event conjured up, and the repeated fortissimo outbursts, Credo, credo confirming a belief beyond doubt.

The concert had the stature of a once in a lifetime event, not merely because it brought to light a piece previously hidden in darkness, but primarily because the quality of the performance by all those involved was quite exceptional.