The word "genial" may seem an awfully soft choice to describe music so normally full of majesty and awe as a mass, but such is the dominant character of the Schubert E-flat Mass, performed last night at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony and the Choral Arts Society under Erich Leinsdorf.
This lengthy work, rarely heard in concert halls, is sometimes almost cheery and at other times stately in its effect. There is little hint of the earthshaking tensions, the despair and grandeur that composers like Beethoven or Mozart or Verdi -- or even Bernstein -- would bring to their masses.
Schubert's Credo, for instance, is basically a joyful drama, with the "Et incarnatus" (the Nativity), an entrancing little trio for a soprano and two tenors, making it sound like the Holy Spirit is more full of charm than of Grace. Right after that, however, the music darkens for a while, arriving at the Crucifixion.
This is primarily a choral work, the five soloists appearing only in vignettes. Norman Scribner's chorus had obviously been painstakingly prepared. It was rich and full in the benign lines of the Kyrie, and a model of clarity and vigor in the powerful fugues near the end of the Credo. The orchestra takes a supportive role much of the time, with few extended instrumental passages.
Leinsdorf molded it all together with his usual superb ear for balances and his sense of proportion for music of this scale.
For all its beauties, though, this music does have the shattering intensity of the two major masterpieces, the Ninth Symphony and the String Quintet, that Schubert also penned in his last year. Perhaps, in this work, Schubert was seeking the language of the late Haydn masses, which are no minor model.
The soloists were splendid, in what little they sang -- soprano Irene Gubrud, mezzo Katherine Ciesinski, tenor John Aler, tenor Gerald Grahame and bass-baritone Michael Burt.
Earlier, Leinsdorf directed a small ensemble of muted brass in Carl Ruggles' enigmatric little wisp of a fanfare, "Angels." Nicely done.
What came next was more than nicely done: Alban Berg's rapturous "Seven Early Songs," beautifully sung by Gubrud (her floated highs were especially glowing). The songs, with their luxuriant and intricate orchestral textures, are not in the same advanced musical language Berg was to use in "Wozzeck" or "Lulu." The songs are lush and lyric, with only a few touches on the pessimism (or the atonality) that would come to dominate Berg's work. The orchestra sounded grand, too.