Bad Kissingen is a very attractive spa town, still very active as a place of convalescence and cure. Like many such places it affords a variety of opportunities for entertainment to enhance the life of the inmates of its many sanatoriums, and for the tourists drawn to the beauty of the town and its surroundings. It boasts a splendidly beautiful concert hall, the Regentenbau, (Regency Building), with a bright acoustic, the venue for concerts and festivals throughout the year. This concert, part of the Ebrach Summer of Music, was packed out, even though the main work was the nowadays almost totally unknown Great Mass in E minor by Johann Ritter von Herbeck.

Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva (an orchestra he formed in 2008 with the Munich Bach Soloists and musicians from other leading Munich orchestras) set off in sprightly fashion with the overture to The Marriage of Figaro - Mozart full of vitality and without a cloud in the sky. The soloist in the violin concerto, Olga Pogorelova, was for ten years the leader of the Staatsorchester Darmstadt, and is currently the first woman to hold the position of leader with the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra. As one had reason to expect from such a player, she gave a superb account of the Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, a performance of intelligence and authority – and great beauty. She demonstrated a generous ability to interact with her fellow musicians, playing along with the orchestra occasionally when not active as soloist, but then, when making her first entry, that unexpected soaring six bar Adagio, the choice of the concert’s title - Heavenly - was suddenly justified.

There was much else in her performance to enjoy – I was particularly taken by the rapt close of the cadenza in the Adagio, and the beguiling inflection of the Minuet Rondo theme with which she opened the closing movement. The orchestra, which had not provided quite the same lightness and brightness of articulation as the soloist, nevertheless gave a good thumping account of the ‘Turkish’ music interlude.

The name of Herbeck is known to us, if at all, as the man who rediscovered and first performed Schubert’s Unfinished symphony, and as a promoter of Anton Bruckner and his music, scheduled to conduct the first performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony - but whilst rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth a few weeks before collapsed and died of pneumonia at the age of 46. Bruckner then found himself obliged to conduct his symphony’s première –one of the biggest disasters of his life. Herbeck had been a very active conductor and composer, bringing first performances of Wagner and Verdi to Vienna, and composing choral works, songs, string quartets, masses, symphonies, stage works and much else. His Great Mass in E minor was well-received at its first performance in 1866, regarded as the most significant such work since Schubert.

The work opens with unaccompanied basses intoning Kyrie eleison, thereafter the other voices join, and the music builds with gently moulded phrases in the choir and melancholy accompanying phrases from horn and woodwind. The whole section comes to a passionate climax before fading away to leave the impression of a beautifully shaped and proportioned movement. It is a striking beginning, and the mass also has a very moving ending as the plea for peace – Dona nobis pacem – dies away beneath a breath-taking descending flute solo. The Agnus Dei had also built to a passionate climax fortissimo climax at misere nobis underpinned by a sudden drum roll – very dramatic, though not with the unsettling power of the military music that invades the Agnus Dei of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The movements between that haunting opening and the melancholy close were similarly well-crafted with many impressive moments – a strong fugue in the Gloria, at Cum sancto spiritus, the parts and the machinations of which Gerd Schaller and his performers brought out with remarkable clarity; the succinct account of Christ’s life in the Credo, from Et incarnatus est to his crucifixion and burial, was wonderfully evocative, the soft words of the choir given special atmosphere by sustained notes on woodwind and horn.The Munich Philharmonic Choir had been magnificent throughout, each section strong and well matched with the others. There are no soloists in this work, so it is for the choir to carry the full narrative of the mass, and they provided choral singing of the highest quality, for which much credit must go to Andreas Herrmann who was responsible for the choral rehearsals.  

The performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and it was certainly very interesting to hear this work composed at the same time as Bruckner’s three great masses.  There is something in Bruckner’s compositions that speaks with a wilder, more passionate voice, always extending the emotional boundaries to the limits that the form will sustain; Herbeck’s mass is somewhat more restrained, less modern, maybe a little too comfortable, but always well-crafted and beautiful to listen to. There is cause for much gratitude to Gerd Schaller and the Ebrach Summer of Music, and to Bavarian Radio, that they gave us the very rare chance to hear this work. It would be equally interesting to investigate other works by this now almost forgotten composer – especially the Symphony no. 4 for orchestra and organ, and Symphonic Variations, given special mention in the programme notes.