Even those who love the symphonies and motets of Anton Bruckner tend to be unfamiliar with his last completed work - Helgoland, for men's chorus and large orchestra, composed in 1893. It's a patriotic piece (though, given that he was a loyal subject of the Hapsburg rather than the German emperor, maybe it wasn't!), recalling the saving of the Saxon inhabitants of the islands from Roman invasion, all thanks to God!
Given its rarity (and, perhaps, its subject matter), you might well assume that it's not very good, but you'd be dead wrong. It's a great piece, worthy to stand alongside the symphonies and sharing many of their characteristics.
Eschewing one characteristic of the Bruckner symphonies, the work fails to begin nebulously but instead launches itself majestically with both chorus and orchestra blazing out a theme based on the notes of a G minor arpeggio. Being Bruckner, splendid excursions into chromaticism and the use of pulsing octaves provides richness to match such power. This passage is followed by a beautiful chorale, largely unaccompanied. Brass fanfares then summon us into heroism but as the section that follows arrives at its intended climax it breaks off and Bruckner waves his magic wand. High strings and woodwinds palpitate softly and the high tenors sing (in a new key) a lyrical theme with horn comments that is wholly typical of the composer - music of beauty and nobility. Majesty blazes back in a mighty major-key declamation but struggle necessitates harmonic disturbance - and that duly follows. A tremolo-rich modulatory passage based on the lyrical theme leads to a brief waxing followed by a waning. The 'recapitulation' begins with the orchestra stirring up a stalwart climax in preparation for the jubilant chorale. Here Bruckner towers and a thrilling tremolo-struck climax is reached. The chorale re-enters quietly but soon builds again in grandeur towards the closing blaze of major-key glory.
It's a stunning work, isn't it?