A Catholic convert from Judaism, Wellesz composed a significant amount of sacred music, including five masses, two of which – the first and the last – feature on this disc.
Wellesz’s operas of the 1920s contain a significant amount of virtuoso choral writing, and this quality carries over into his church music, although on the whole they are written in a simpler, more traditionally tonal idiom.
His first setting of the Mass was the Mass in F minor, Op. 51 for chorus and organ composed in 1934. Coming just a year into Hitler’s reign in Germany, it is tempting to read contemporary significance into this masterly but profoundly troubled work. The choice of key may suggest the example of Bruckner’s great F minor Mass – the two works might be said to have a certain majestic architectural quality, combined with intense emotional appeal, in common.
Wellesz’s last setting of the Mass was his unaccompanied Missa Brevis, Op. 89, composed in 1963. Lasting only a third as long as the F minor Mass, this short work is on one level much simpler. In extracting the spiritual essence from the various texts, it seems to compress its various sections into musical epigrams that take on the aura of gnomic sayings. From 1965 comes one of Wellesz’s most impressive and affecting unaccompanied choral works, To Sleep, Op. 94. a setting of John Keats sonnet. This work makes use of the more advanced harmonic and melodic tendencies of his late, freely 12-note idiom. But this is a deeply-felt setting that brings out the oppressive undertones of Keats’s words. Perhaps Wellesz, who had reached his eightieth year, felt this meditation on sleep and death especially keenly. At all events he created a powerful vocal miniature that enshrines an eloquent response to the poem.