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on April 1, 2005
First things first, I must comment on the only other review written... The composer of this work is Sven-David Sandström, not Jan. If you know anything about either of these composers you will know there is a BIG difference between the two. Also, the work is compared to Bach's mass because the layout or form of the work is the same as that found in the Bach. There are several small movements which are put together to make up each large movement of the mass. This is different from the Beethoven where each movement of the mass is one large musical movement. That is the relation to the great B minor Mass.

As for my opinion of the work it is AMAZING! It is truly a masterpiece and in my opinion the greatest work written in the 2nd half of the 20th century. The High Mass is reverent and at the same time provocative and gives the listener something new in a language that is accessible and is without 20th century incomprehensible gimmicks. The repetition is beautiful, much like that found in Bach's mass, and allows the listener a chance to comprehend the power of the text along with the power of the music.
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on July 14, 2005
I was recently given this CD by a friend who is a classical musician. I, not being a classical musician, was hesitant at first, but then quickly became enamored by the work. There is so much beauty in this work! I, as most people, have reservations about listening to "contemporary" music but this work is a huge breath of fresh air. Even the intense, harsh movements are beautiful and breathtaking. One gets a real sense of this mans connection with God and relates his passion perfectly.

Anyone who loves music (any kind) should buy this CD! - - 10 starts!!!

*Be sure and stop the CD after the Agnus Dei - the other work seems to ruin the atmosphere.
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on March 21, 2005
The liner notes for this mass indicate that it tries to emulate Bach's b-minor mass as the composer's artistic and religious credo. A more apt description would be the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. Bach's approach was to create an exemplary model of every form of composition then encountered, Beethoven's goal was to create a highly advanced yet personal mass narrative that would further the compositional possiblities of music.

Such goals often turn to folly, even if they help sell CD's or win grants. In this case, the true praise goes to Deutsche Grammophon for willing to release a two cd contemporary choral work. Nearly everything about this work is destined to fail: it's choral, it's long, it's modern. The liner note hyperbole is perhaps necessary to sell any copies at all.

Jan Sandstrom is primarily known as a composer of choral minatures for the small group of extremely advanced professional Scandinavian choral ensembles (think Eric Ericson). In this he excels. The real money, however, is in orchestral commissions, and he has a fair amount of experience in that area as well. The choral writing is idiomatic and impressive, assuming one has a well-paid European chorus with limitless rehearsal in your budget.

So far, the largest amount of criticism (mainly European) of the work has been for the excessive tonality. I feel this is a shame. The liner notes again go to the extreme: they emphasize the composer has retreated from serialism. Is this news now that most composers have? Does anyone care?

My problem with the work is threefold: one, the composer's harmonic idiom, although well crafted, lacks a contrapuntal base (in a work modeled on the b-minor mass, that's an indictment). The chorus is always homophonic. Second, the composer relishes in his immense performing forces to a fault. There is no economy in this work, and he doesn't use the huge orchestra for any other purpose than to make things loud; also, his orchestral writing is significantly less idiomatic than his choral writing. This flaw prevents the works' long term success and makes it costly to produce. Often, restricted means lead to the best composition. No wonder, Sandstrom's best work has been with choral minatures.

Finally, the work suffers from too many ideas repeated too many times. It's like those huge office building that are shaped that way to fit the planning code's idiosyncrasies. Somewhere along the road, the composer lost sight of his large plan.

If someone is looking for a large scale contemporary choral work that manages to excel in many areas where this fails, I would refer the seeker to Henze's Ninth symphony. That work is indebted to another work that I have no need to name, but, in that case, the composer found means to cope with the historical precedent and write a work of profound craftsmanship.
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This installment in Deutsche Grammaphon's "20/21" series of contemporary music highlights the work of two Swedish composers. The centerpiece is Sven-David Sandstrom's "The High Mass", and the remainder of the second disc is filled out by Ingvar Lidholm's "Kontakion". The pieces are performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

Sandstrom's "The High Mass" for three sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, chorus, organ and orchestra (1993-94) is a work of massive proportion. It is almost identical in structure of Bach's "Mass in B Minor", where choral and solo sections alternate. The piece is modern in sound, though neo-tonal and neo-Romantic. The work is rather inconsistent. At one moment Sandstrom seems to be pandering to the audience, as with the opening "Kyrie eleison" or minimalist-inspired "Gloria in excelsis Dei". In other moments, however, the music seems is aimless, and everything is drawn out far beyond it should be. All in all, there is little original insight. Though I have little praise of Sandstrom's work, I must commend the performers, especially the solo sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, who in many places are not given the briefest opportunity to rest yet keep up admirably.

Lidholm's "Kontakion" for orchestra (1978) is considerably more interesting. Written for a Swedish orchestra's visit to the Soviet Union in 1979, the work is a series of variations on melodic fragments of an Orthodox kontakion. Providing a religious work for such a tour was a bold defiance of the Soviet Union's crackdown on the Church, and must have been moving for its audience. As the work begins it is already twisting the original melody beyond recognition, and only towards the end does the original appear, performed by an offstage trumpet with marimba accompaniment.

The liner notes include biographies of the composer and the soloists, and the text of the mass in Latin and English translation. In his essay about the works, Per F. Broman tries hard to make an apology for a neo-Romantic work like Sandstrom's being written today when the style has long been historically superseded by pan-tonalism and serialism, among other modern developments. Nonetheless, as a fan of more thoughtful composers like Gubaidulina, Xenakis, and Boulez, I found his arguments unconvincing.

This certainly isn't one of the most interesting discs in the "20/21" series, and paying so much when the main feature, Sandstrom's "The High Mass", is disappointing does not do much to recommend the disc. Nonetheless, if you are curious about the work of Lidholm, this is a means to hear it.
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on June 20, 2011
Good intentions all around, but Sandstrom's High Mass is simply too long and drawn out. Yes, there are some beautiful moments, also things to be learned from various orchestral effects, but the work would have been infinitely more attractive if reduced to one-sixth its size. The performers do their absolute best -- the choral sopranos are amazing -- and the DG sound engineering is up to its legendary standards. This item is useful for aspiring composers as a case study of what works and what doesn't. It's AWFULLY loud in spots, so don't play it in the car or you'll be distracted.

Lindholm's Kontakion is a valid example of 20th-century modernism, but not much more.
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