RHEINBERGER: Works for Organ, Vol. 1 (Wolfgang Rubsam) (Naxos: 8.554212)
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Joseph GabrielRheinberger (1839-1901)
Organ Works, Volume 2
The life, times, and opus of Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901)reflect an almost Hegelian continuum of thesis and antithesis yielding anartistic synthesis. He was, at once, conservative and reformer, circumscribedand famous, mildly anachronistic and expressive of his time. Today, we know himprimarily as a composer of organ music, though his compositions addressvirtually all musical media of his century. Few of us are familiar with his romanticopera The Seven Ravens, or the Florentine Symphony, yet heunderstood the voice very well and was recognised as a skilled conductor.
Unhappily, Rheinberger's organ sonatas have not enjoyed unbrokenprominence in recitals, standing stylistically between Mendelssohn and Brahmson one hand and Max Reger on the other. Nonetheless, Reger unhesitatinglydedicated the virtuosic, massive and contrapuntally intricate Fantasy andFugue on B.A.C.H. to none other than Rheinberger. Such a dedication is onlyone among many examples of the high regard in which Rheinberger was held ascomposer, teacher and proponent of the organ. Although he concentrated themajority of his activity in Munich, he was internationally recognised; studentsfrom all parts of the world came to study the organ, counterpoint andcomposition with him. He was also honoured politically and educationally; KingLudwig II of Bavaria made him a Knight of St Michael, he was elevated to'Zivilverdienstorden' (similar to nobility) and, two years prior to his deathin 1901, the Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa, was conferred on himby the University of Munich.
The twenty organ sonatas (in as many keys) reveal a fertilecompositional imagination, unhampered by the strict forms which Rheinberger frequentlychose as frames for his expressive writing. Seventeen sonatas contain fugues,but, with Rheinberger, the fugue is far more a developmental device than a setof rules to be obeyed slavishly. After a rather strict exposition, Rheinbergerusually introduces devices reminiscent of the sonata-allegro form, injectingfully quoted themes from earlier movements, sometimes harmonizing the subjectwith large structures, abandoning the fugal 'voicing' entirely. Within the samesonata, one finds writing reminiscent of 'songs without words', virtuosicpianistic writing and the more severe forms described above. Frequently,Rheinberger, ever the formalist, will 'round off' a sonata by quoting themesfrom the opening movement during the final - or its extended coda.
One should not, in my estimation, look overly closely to the stop-listof organs with which Rheinberger was regularly associated, for interpretiveguides. By the same token, the absence of dynamic markings in the sonatasshould not imply a 'neo-classic' approach to playing them. There is strongevidence that crescendos and diminuendos through addition or subtraction ofstops (as evidenced by Johann Schneider of Dresden, for example) were quitenormal in German-speaking Europe at this time. We are in the presence ofextraordinary and masterfully crafted literature for the organ. It isthoroughly idiomatic, yet, in the Hegelian spirit, forms a synthesis fromidioms, reminiscent of the piano, the orchestra, and the human voice, whichRheinberger so thoroughly understood during his sixty-two years.
The three-movement Sonata No. 1 in C minor, written in 1868,exhibits a broad palette of compositional craft. In the opening movement,virtuosic passagework, punctuations with large chords, and arpeggio figures occurwithin an otherwise clear A-B-A coda form. The middle movement, marked Andante,is in C major and is, fundamentally, a succession of statements of theprincipal theme, with varying octave-placement and accompanying rhythmicfigures. The concluding cadence on the dominant (involving a French Sixthstructure) leads directly to the fugal finale. The final movement is one ofRheinberger's stricter organ figures, and exhibits his complete control overcontrapuntal device. In a loose sense, it is a double fugue (the second subjectbeing more freely treated), skilfully combining the two contrasting subjects.
The end of this movement reveals a homophonic treatment of the subject in largechords, as well as one of the few final V-I cadences in all of the twenty sonatas.
Sonata No. 2 in A flat major, written in 1871, is reminiscent of anorchestral work. The opening Grave and Allegro contrast dynamicsand massive structures with filigree and arpeggio figures. A second theme, inE flat, then alternates with the principal theme. A fortissimo statementof the second theme in A flat and a five-voice coda, with a sixth voiceappearing in the pedal in the final three measures conclude this movement. Thesong-like Adagio espressivo is in the harmonic submediant of E major. Itis a clear A-B-A coda form, with a flowing semi quaver texture predominating.
The opening theme is reinstated in the tenor. An authentic cadence (VII7-I)concludes the brief coda. The fugal finale exhibits long note-values andalternates between 2/2 and 6/4. The subject is treated in a strict exposition,after which the principal theme of the Grave appears in augmentation inthe soprano; fugal writing gives way to the sonata-allegro form, with a briefstatement of the principal theme of the Adagio, then a stretto onthe fugue subject and a massive coda, ending with an altered plagal cadence.
The eighth Gregorian psalm-tone forms the basis for the three-movement SonataNo. 3 in G major (1875). Each section of the tone is quoted, thenelaborated in the first movement. The tone then appears in its entirety,accompanied by a constant stream of triplets. The second movement, in E flat,is like a song without words. A sustained melody is enhanced with flowingquavers in the accompaniment, and subtle, skilful modulations, leading to thedominant of G major. The fugue is energetic and relatively strict until thepsalm-tone appears harmonized in E major. From there, fugal textures alternatewith chordal structures; the subject and psalm-tone combine very effectively. Afortiszimo altered 'Amen' plagal cadence concludes this work.
In his Sonata No. 4 in A minor of 1876, Rheinberger crafts asonata in three contrasting and architecturally balanced movements, based on aGregorian psalm-tone. In the first movement, statements of the principal themealternate with variations on the tonus peregrinus, ending with avirtuosic triplet figure and large chords. The second movement is an A-B-Aform; a graceful, vocal idiom. A second theme, in quavers, is accompanied bysemiquaver figures. Erudite but subtle modulations typify the harmony in thismovement. The concluding fuga chromatica is austere, yet intricate.
Rheinberger, after an extended pedal-point on E, restates the first movement'sprincipal theme, then closes this sonata with a highly chromatic peroration onthe tonus peregrinus and VII7-I final cadence.
Mark L. Russakoff