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Gregory Batsleer: "Schubert's Mass in A-flat is a real hidden gem"

6 Nov 2023

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Mention Schubert and an enormous number of masterpieces come to mind: the Lieder, of course, the late symphonies, acres of chamber music ... but choral works? Rather less so. To shed some light on an undeservedly overlooked part of Schubert's oeuvre, we spoke to SCO Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer, who makes a welcome return to conducting both the Orchestra and Chorus in his Mass in A-flat.

The last time you conducted the SCO and SCO Chorus, the main item in the programme was Haydn’s Harmonie-Messe. What made you pick Schubert for this concert?

I first worked on the Mass in A-flat around a year ago, which was around the same time we started discussing what we should programme for this concert. During the time I was working on the piece, in the back of my head I knew that if given the opportunity both the SCO and SCO Chorus would love this piece, and how wonderful would it be if they would be able to bring their unique style and flair to this rather brilliantly bonkers piece. It enables pretty much all parties on stage to have a moment in the spotlight, but it above all is an incredibly uplifting piece of music.

Schubert revised parts of the Mass in A-flat in the mid-1820s, notably rewriting the fugue at the end of the Gloria. How did you decide which version to perform?

My understanding is that he was asked to revise the original fugue owing to the complexity of the original setting. The SCO Chorus is one of very finest choruses in the UK and very little fazes this remarkable group, therefore I'm delighted that we will be performing the somewhat complex and virtuosic original setting. I am sure the audience will love it.

Schubert's choral music can often seem more personal and reflective.

Where does the Mass in A-flat fit into the wider history of mass settings? There are the nods to Mozart and Haydn you’d expect, but Schubert almost seems to anticipate Bruckner at times.

Beyond some moments of flair there are real moments of depth within this work, with many references to other notable sacred music. Schubert miraculously managed to create a truly original mass setting that seems somehow to take in both 150 years worth of musical history as well as looking into the future. The Mass in A-flat is a real hidden gem and one well worth experiencing along side some other magical composers.

Compared to his Lieder, symphonies and chamber music, Schubert’s choral works seem strangely little known. Why do you think this is?

The popularity of music is down to zeitgeist. Schubert captured the zeitgeist through his relationship and commitment to lieder, and through the popularity of this genre the popularity of his instrumental music grew. His choral music offers a very different perspective: it can often seem more personal and reflective. There are some very special works within his choral catalogue, here’s hoping there may they may one day capture the zeitgeist too!

After singing Elijah at the BBC Proms this summer, it’s fair to say the SCO Chorus is riding high. What’s next for its members?

The SCO Chorus are utterly remarkable. They have a collective and fearless desire to constantly improve, they remain refreshingly open minded to new musical ideas and perspectives. It is a complete privilege to work with them. We have lots of exciting ideas brewing for the future. After our concert of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann we return to Greyfriars for our Christmas concert, a highlight for us all in our musical calendar.

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