About this Recording
8.557787 - RHEINBERGER: Organ Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
English  German 

Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901)
Organ Concertos

On the matter of combining organ and orchestra, experts have spoken in no uncertain terms. Hector Berlioz in his Treatise on Instrumentation from the 1850s stated that the resources of the organ “are so numerous and diverse that no composer, in our opinion, can understand them adequately unless he himself is an accomplished organist”. He also felt that “the even and uniform tones of the organ can never fuse completely with the extremely variable sounds of the orchestra; there is a secret antipathy between these two musical powers”, which he likened to a pope and an emperor. Berlioz, though, himself combined them, together with voices, in his massive Te Deum, and Richard Strauss, who updated the Treatise half a century later, and let the foregoing remarks stand, called for the organ in such scores as Also sprach Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony. Clearly, then, a successful combination is possible, but it requires a composer with experience and solid technique.

Few people could have been any more qualified than Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger. He became organist of his hometown parish in Liechtenstein at the age of seven, entered the conservatory in Munich at twelve, was offered a professorship in piano there at nineteen, later acquired positions in organ and composition that he held until shortly before he died, and was the director of church music to the King of Bavaria from 1877 to 1894. Rheinberger is known today primarily for his organ music, notably twenty sonatas, all in different major or minor keys, and the two present concerti, and yet the organ figures in only about one-sixth of his 197 published works. Certain convenient generalisations about late-nineteenth-century German music do him injustice, one being that Germany during this period produced no historically significant Roman Catholic composers, and the other being that most musicians took sides between Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner and never set foot in the other camp once they did so.

If German Catholics are under-represented in this span of history, it may have something to do with the Caecilian movement of the day. This well-meaning retrenchment from opulent excesses sought to revive Gregorian chant and sixteenth-century polyphony, but it set some unhelpful boundaries and arguably lent a certain stodginess to the works of its disciples. Pope Leo XIII awarded Rheinberger the Knight’s Cross of the Order of St Gregory in 1879 for the Op. 109 Cantus missae for double unaccompanied choir, which might lead us to believe that this Mass setting is merely another dry Caecilian work. Quite the contrary: If anything, it is something of a guilty pleasure, with its Liebeslieder-like Benedictus and overall melodic profligacy. Clearly, as did Palestrina centuries earlier, Rheinberger had found a way to reconcile liturgical dignity with contemporaneous musical know-how.

Many writers on German music correctly describe rancorous debates between partisans of Brahms and Wagner, for whom these men embodied, respectively, ideals of tradition and innovation. If Rheinberger’s outwardly conventional and conservative music would seemingly consign him to the Brahmsian side of the debate, his professional actions argue otherwise. Most notably, he took up the Wagnerian cause to the extent that he lent a hand in the first performances of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, works that a true reactionary classicist would have avoided like the proverbial skunk in the road. Likewise, as a professor of composition he appears not to have established any lock-step conformity, turning out a diverse body of musicians including Engelbert Humperdinck, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and future American luminaries George Chadwick and Horatio Parker. The latter, incidentally, trained Charles Ives, the American experimentalist. Rheinberger’s early studies with Franz Lachner, an associate of Schubert, thus make him a key link in an otherwise improbable chain from Schubert to Ives.

For his late-career organ concertos Rheinberger chose a string orchestra with judicious touches of colour, a trio of horns in the First Concerto and pairs of trumpets and horns with timpani in the Second. In choosing these accompanying forces, he thus walked a fine line between the strings-only austerity of Handel and Mozart and the full-orchestra tonal extravagance, and perhaps redundancy, of certain French-school composers, of whom Guilmant, Dupré, and Jongen come to mind. The resulting works are appropriate repertoire both for church performance with chamber orchestras and for concert halls with symphonic organs and room enough for a late-Romantic contingent of strings.

Interestingly, Rheinberger composed his organ music in the context of a constraint that many modern organists would find troublesome: the instrument to which he was accustomed could change degrees of loudness only by the addition or reduction of stops, not with the adjustable louvered panels, called swell shades, that nowadays customarily enclose at least part of an organ’s pipework. In the sheet music for these works, there are no crescendo or decrescendo markings in the organ parts, only in the accompaniment. Rheinberger in effect reverts in the solo part to the so-called “terraced dynamics” of the pre-Classical repertoire, but his moment-to-moment choices of instrumentation avoid monotony. These involve everything from organ and orchestra speaking separately in succession to the two entities doubling one another for emphasis, with countless gradations in between. Sometimes the organ is meant to dominate, but some of the time it takes a supporting rôle to the orchestra, an aspect that the performers on this recording chose to make clear.

Rheinberger himself once advised that music should not require a lot of explanation to be appreciated. Indeed, neither the First Concerto nor the Second require elaborate programme notes to help a first-time listener to enjoy them, but there is probably no harm in pointing out some attractive features in the music. As is sometimes the case with a self-effacing careerist – that is, one quick to lend a hand to worthy colleagues but not inclined toward self-promotion – this composer sometimes reveals less of himself in principal themes and more in secondary themes. In the first movement of the Concerto in G minor, the major-key subsidiary theme threatens to modulate almost immediately to a minor key but reassuringly finds its way back. Similarly, the confident finale of the Concerto in F major offers a particularly endearing second theme, and the same movement offers a fugal passage with the beneficial effects but without a fussily drawn-out process. It is also the only movement in either work to contain a significant solo cadenza.

Finally, it is a pleasure to report good news with regard to dissemination of Rheinberger’s largely neglected music. Though the Rheinberger archives were moved to his native Liechtenstein in 1944, the creation of an official collected edition, with 48 volumes planned, did not begin until nearly the sesquicentennial of his birth, but thanks to funding from the principality, this is currently well underway. The new millennium also saw the formation of an institute for scholars and a membership society for music-lovers. Rheinberger may end up being better appreciated in the current century than in the preceding one in which he appeared all too briefly.

R. Gregory Capaldini


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