About this Recording
8.554212 - RHEINBERGER, J.G.: Organ Works, Vol. 1 (Rubsam)

Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (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 an artistic synthesis. He was, at once, conservative and reformer, circumscribed and famous, mildly anachronistic and expressive of his time. Today, we know him primarily as a composer of organ music, though his compositions address virtually all musical media of his century. Few of us are familiar with his romantic opera The Seven Ravens, or the Florentine Symphony, yet he understood the voice very well and was recognised as a skilled conductor.

Unhappily, Rheinberger's organ sonatas have not enjoyed unbroken prominence in recitals, standing stylistically between Mendelssohn and Brahms on one hand and Max Reger on the other. Nonetheless, Reger unhesitatingly dedicated the virtuosic, massive and contrapuntally intricate Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. to none other than Rheinberger. Such a dedication is only one among many examples of the high regard in which Rheinberger was held as composer, teacher and proponent of the organ. Although he concentrated the majority of his activity in Munich, he was internationally recognised; students from all parts of the world came to study the organ, counterpoint and composition with him. He was also honoured politically and educationally; King Ludwig II of Bavaria made him a Knight of St Michael, he was elevated to 'Zivilverdienstorden' (similar to nobility) and, two years prior to his death in 1901, the Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa, was conferred on him by the University of Munich.

The twenty organ sonatas (in as many keys) reveal a fertile compositional imagination, unhampered by the strict forms which Rheinberger frequently chose as frames for his expressive writing. Seventeen sonatas contain fugues, but, with Rheinberger, the fugue is far more a developmental device than a set of rules to be obeyed slavishly. After a rather strict exposition, Rheinberger usually introduces devices reminiscent of the sonata-allegro form, injecting fully quoted themes from earlier movements, sometimes harmonizing the subject with large structures, abandoning the fugal 'voicing' entirely. Within the same sonata, one finds writing reminiscent of 'songs without words', virtuosic pianistic writing and the more severe forms described above. Frequently, Rheinberger, ever the formalist, will ‘round off’ a sonata by quoting themes from the opening movement during the final – or its extended coda.

One should not, in my estimation, look overly closely to the stop-list of organs with which Rheinberger was regularly associated, for interpretive guides. By the same token, the absence of dynamic markings in the sonatas should not imply a 'neo-classic' approach to playing them. There is strong evidence that crescendos and diminuendos through addition or subtraction of stops (as evidenced by Johann Schneider of Dresden, for example) were quite normal in German-speaking Europe at this time. We are in the presence of extraordinary and masterfully crafted literature for the organ. It is thoroughly idiomatic, yet, in the Hegelian spirit, forms a synthesis from idioms, reminiscent of the piano, the orchestra, and the human voice, which Rheinberger 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 occur within 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 the principal theme, with varying octave-placement and accompanying rhythmic figures. The concluding cadence on the dominant (involving a French Sixth structure) leads directly to the fugal finale. The final movement is one of Rheinberger's stricter organ figures, and exhibits his complete control over contrapuntal device. In a loose sense, it is a double fugue (the second subject being more freely treated), skilfully combining the two contrasting subjects. The end of this movement reveals a homophonic treatment of the subject in large chords, 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 an orchestral work. The opening Grave and Allegro contrast dynamics and massive structures with filigree and arpeggio figures. A second theme, in E flat, then alternates with the principal theme. A fortissimo statement of the second theme in A flat and a five-voice coda, with a sixth voice appearing in the pedal in the final three measures conclude this movement. The song-like Adagio espressivo is in the harmonic submediant of E major. It is 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 and alternates 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 in the soprano; fugal writing gives way to the sonata-allegro form, with a brief statement of the principal theme of the Adagio, then a stretto on the fugue subject and a massive coda, ending with an altered plagal cadence.

The eighth Gregorian psalm-tone forms the basis for the three-movement Sonata No. 3 in G major (1875). Each section of the tone is quoted, then elaborated 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 flowing quavers in the accompaniment, and subtle, skilful modulations, leading to the dominant of G major. The fugue is energetic and relatively strict until the psalm-tone appears harmonized in E major. From there, fugal textures alternate with chordal structures; the subject and psalm-tone combine very effectively. A fortiszimo altered 'Amen' plagal cadence concludes this work.

In his Sonata No. 4 in A minor of 1876, Rheinberger crafts a sonata in three contrasting and architecturally balanced movements, based on a Gregorian psalm-tone. In the first movement, statements of the principal theme alternate with variations on the tonus peregrinus, ending with a virtuosic triplet figure and large chords. The second movement is an A-B-A form; a graceful, vocal idiom. A second theme, in quavers, is accompanied by semiquaver figures. Erudite but subtle modulations typify the harmony in this movement. The concluding fuga chromatica is austere, yet intricate. Rheinberger, after an extended pedal-point on E, restates the first movement's principal theme, then closes this sonata with a highly chromatic peroration on the tonus peregrinus and VII7-I final cadence.

Mark L. Russakoff

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