RHEINBERGER: Works for Organ, Vol. 2 (Wolfgang Rubsam) (Naxos: 8.554213)
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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 of extraordinary and masterfully craftedliterature for the organ. It is thoroughly idiomatic, yet, in the Hegelianspirit, forms a synthesis from idioms, reminiscent of the piano, the orchestra,and the human voice, which Rheinberger so thoroughly understood during hissixty-two years.
The three-movement Sonata No. 5 in F sharp major wascomposed in 1878. Its virtuosic first movement begins in the parallel minorwith a stern opening theme. The middle section is a strict figure with acontrasting counter-subject, exhibiting bold modulations and technicallychallenging writing. A restatement of the opening theme, ending in the majorkey, concludes this movement. The second movement, in D major, begins with anadagio, the theme being stated in dialogue between the soprano and the tenor. Adeft allegro in F sharp minor follows, and the movement concludes with theopening theme restated, accompanied by triplets. A bithematic symphonic andharmonically bold quasi-rondo concludes the sonata. Modulations to the majorand (enharmonic) minor submediants reveal a contrasting yet virtuosic secondtheme. The final twenty measures are a triumph of contrast and compositionalskill.
The Sonata No. 6 in E flat minor, composed in 1880, is in fourmovements, its opening Praeluduim exhibiting harmonic and figuralwriting that would do justice to Reger (seven years old at the work'spublication). A symphonic opening theme gives way to 21 measures of fugalwriting, which alternate with the opening theme, virtuosic passagework and abrief stretto. The flowing, semi-canonic Intermezzo is similar to thewriting in Rheinberger's organ trios. It grows to six voices before restatingthe opening theme, closing with a repeated pedal figure beneath an authenticcadence. A Marcia religiosa follows, processional and pontifical incharacter, with a derivative yet contrasting theme in E major. Martial crochetmotion alternating with dotted quavers and semi-quavers predominates here. Thefirst theme returns, driving to a cadence on the dominant. The closing fugue isstrict, virtuosic and contrapuntally adept the subject appearing inaugmentation after a partial recto statement in the soprano. A final quotationof the opening movement's principal theme ends pyrrhically: pianissimo.
The Sonata No. 7 in F minor, composed in 1881, opens with a Praeludiumthat is massive, polythematic and harmonically bold. This sonata-allegromovement is reminiscent both of Beethoven and of Brahms, from the standpointsof thematic expansion and elaboration, as alternating and superposed quaverpairs and triplets predominate. A truncated recapitulation, coda, flourish anda VII7-I cadence over a tonic pedal point conclude the Praeludium. The Andante(in the submediant, D flat) contrasts a slow lyrical first section with afleet and intricate interlude, dominated by demi-semi-quavers. The openingthematic material is quoted briefly as this harmonically conservative, butwell-constructed movement ends 'pianississimo'. The closing Finale (afantasy and fugue) is initially virtuosic, leading into what is actually more afugato than a fugue. A twelve-measure exposition of another subject appears,only to have the first subject emerge in the alto. Four- and five-voiceimitation alternate, then the subject is harmonized massively. The movementcloses magnificently with a conflicting plagal and authentic cadentialstructure.
Mark L. Russakoff