Stephen Francis Vasta
, May 2007
Not to put too fine a point on the matter, this is a beautiful record.
Joseph Rheinberger, Liechtenstein's foremost composer - I'm not necessarily sneering - was an organist from the age of seven, according to R. Gregory Capaldini's program note. When he was nineteen, the Munich Conservatory offered him a piano professorship, to which he later added posts in organ and composition, and he was the director of church music to the King of Bavaria from 1877 to 1894. His pupils were a diverse lot, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Horatio Parker. Unsurprisingly, the music for organ - these concertos, along with twenty solo sonatas - constitute the best-known, if not the largest, part of the composer's output, though his cantata The Star of Bethlehem and a few motets make the occasional appearance.
The essential impulse from which Rheinberger's music arises is lyrical rather than thrusting or dramatic, with the themes' varied rhythmic profiles providing the necessary contrast. Even the G minor concerto, after an opening theme suggesting the influence of Mozart's Italian-opera style, settles shortly into an amiable cantabile. The sense of form is unconventional, but sure; the first movement of each concerto gives the impression of a free fantasy, yet the music conveys the inevitable sense of progress of a well-constructed sonata movement, and produces the same sort of emotional fulfillment. And, for all the basic Brahmsian conservatism of the composer's idiom, there's the occasional forward-looking moment - note the way Elgar - granted, another "Brahmsian" composer - keeps trying to break through in the Andante of the Second Concerto.
These concertos display Rheinberger's keen sense of the organ's sonic possibilities. The instrument doesn't naturally blend with those in the orchestra - not even the winds, whose attack is different - but here we hear the organ and orchestra functioning now as equally matched partners, now as gentle antagonists in the concertante style. A particular oddity is the use of Baroque-style terraced dynamics in the solo parts: apparently the composer's instrument lacked a swell box, such as would have enabled crescendos and diminuendos. The orchestra, of course, can still make such gradual adjustments, which helps to avoid monotony.
The performances are mostly first-rate. Paul Skevington is an adept, accomplished soloist, and his sensitive, intelligent registrations offer fullness and clarity without cluttering the air with overtones - a salutary reminder of the instrument's capabilities if too much mediocre, undifferentiated church playing has dulled your ears. The Amadeus Orchestra, comprising strings along with three horns (in the F major concerto) or pairs of trumpets and horns with timpani (in the G minor), supports him handsomely. The strings lean into their themes with dignity and breadth. The horns have the occasional moment in the limelight, but principally serve as a sort of timbral bridge between the organ and the strings. The trumpets in the G minor, alas, let down the side: their little duet at 5:10 of the finale is limp, and their tuning generally is dubious.
The sound is excellent. The organ-orchestra combination can be difficult to record, especially when the organ pipes are dispersed throughout a spacious venue, but this production team simply makes the problems go away. The organ sounds clean and "present" within a roomy acoustic; the strings' space is clearly defined, with the horns registering naturally within the string body - nicely done.
Praise once again goes to Naxos for taking a relatively obscure recording - this one originally appeared on the Sonoris label - and bringing it the wider circulation it deserves … despite the trumpets.