About this Recording
8.554213 - RHEINBERGER, J.G.: Organ Works, Vol. 2 (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. 5 in F sharp major was composed in 1878. Its virtuosic first movement begins in the parallel minor with a stern opening theme. The middle section is a strict figure with a contrasting counter-subject, exhibiting bold modulations and technically challenging writing. A restatement of the opening theme, ending in the major key, concludes this movement. The second movement, in D major, begins with an adagio, the theme being stated in dialogue between the soprano and the tenor. A deft allegro in F sharp minor follows, and the movement concludes with the opening theme restated, accompanied by triplets. A bithematic symphonic and harmonically bold quasi-rondo concludes the sonata. Modulations to the major and (enharmonic) minor submediants reveal a contrasting yet virtuosic second theme. The final twenty measures are a triumph of contrast and compositional skill.

The Sonata No. 6 in E flat minor, composed in 1880, is in four movements, its opening Praeluduim exhibiting harmonic and figural writing that would do justice to Reger (seven years old at the work's publication). A symphonic opening theme gives way to 21 measures of fugal writing, which alternate with the opening theme, virtuosic passagework and a brief stretto. The flowing, semi-canonic Intermezzo is similar to the writing in Rheinberger's organ trios. It grows to six voices before restating the opening theme, closing with a repeated pedal figure beneath an authentic cadence. A Marcia religiosa follows, processional and pontifical in character, with a derivative yet contrasting theme in E major. Martial crochet motion alternating with dotted quavers and semi-quavers predominates here. The first theme returns, driving to a cadence on the dominant. The closing fugue is strict, virtuosic and contrapuntally adept the subject appearing in augmentation after a partial recto statement in the soprano. A final quotation of the opening movement's principal theme ends pyrrhically: pianissimo.

The Sonata No. 7 in F minor, composed in 1881, opens with a Praeludium that is massive, polythematic and harmonically bold. This sonata-allegro movement is reminiscent both of Beethoven and of Brahms, from the standpoints of thematic expansion and elaboration, as alternating and superposed quaver pairs and triplets predominate. A truncated recapitulation, coda, flourish and a 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 a fleet and intricate interlude, dominated by demi-semi-quavers. The opening thematic material is quoted briefly as this harmonically conservative, but well-constructed movement ends 'pianississimo'. The closing Finale (a fantasy and fugue) is initially virtuosic, leading into what is actually more a fugato than a fugue. A twelve-measure exposition of another subject appears, only to have the first subject emerge in the alto. Four- and five-voice imitation alternate, then the subject is harmonized massively. The movement closes magnificently with a conflicting plagal and authentic cadential structure.

Mark L. Russakoff

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