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Joseph Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Organ Works - Volume 6
Sonata No.14 in C, Op.165 (1890) [25:59]
Sonata No.15 in D, Op.168 (1891) [29:18]
Sonata No.16 in G-sharp minor, Op.175 (1893) [23:13]
Wolfgang Rübsam (Rieger-Sauer Organ of Fulda Cathedral)
rec. Fulda Cathedral, German, April 2007. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English and German
NAXOS 8.570313 [78:31]
Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos series of Rheinberger’s Organ Works, performed by Wolfgang Rübsam, is proceeding sporadically. The first volume was issued in 2000 and Volume 5 (not Volume 13, pace the Penguin Guide) was reviewed here on Musicweb as long ago as March 2004, when it received a general welcome (see review). There must still be two volumes to go before the series of twenty Organ Sonatas is completed. The slowness of the enterprise cannot be laid at the door of reviewers, since all the volumes to date have received generally encouraging reviews.
Perhaps there just isn’t much of a market for Rheinberger: the Naxos headnote describes his organ music as ‘demanding’, an epithet which might apply to the listener as much as to the performer. The Musicweb review of Volume 5 aptly describes the sonatas as “works that may need several plays before they reveal their treasures to the listener”. That may not sound amenable to a generation conditioned by the short-term attention span of television, which has made the music and literature of the 19th Century and even later seem almost as alien as the medieval, but it is worth making the effort.
I hesitate to use such terms as ‘heavyweight’ and ‘cerebral’ for fear of putting readers off. Rheinberger’s music may not be as overtly exciting as the warhorses of some of his French contemporaries, but it certainly has its exciting moments – which is what the headnote presumably means by ‘virtuosic’. To take the first movement of Sonata No.14 as an example, both the music and the playing may seem rather tame at first, with Rübsam scrupulously maintaining what the notes describe as the important rhythmic figure in the opening maestoso. Even the fugue which follows is comparatively restrained, with Rübsam carefully following the poco in the direction poco più mosso, but when the opening theme and maestoso tempo reappear in the coda, he grasps with both hands and feet the opportunity which Rheinberger and the Fulda organ offer him to let rip.
The second movement, a charming Idyll, receives an appropriately delicate performance, dream-like at times, though with moments when Rübsam takes the opportunity to open up in mid-movement. As the movement dies away to near-inaudibility, one could not ask for greater delicacy. The Toccata Finale offers opportunities both for some delicate playing and for a blazing climax; organ and organist are again fully up to the task. I defy anyone other than positive organ-haters not to be moved by the music and the performance of this movement. The sonata as a whole runs through a variety of moods, from the truly affecting to the grandiose.
Like all the works on this recording, it may seem to take a long time to make its point but all these sonatas are well worth hearing. Though nothing here is as instantly memorable as, say, Widor, that is due at least in part to the limited opportunities to hear Rheinberger’s music. I cannot endorse the comments of one reviewer of volume 1 (not Musicweb) who characterised Rheinberger’s music as dreary and turgid.
That reviewer candidly admitted that Rheinberger’s music is not to his liking, whereas I must declare the opposite: it may not be grist to my mill in all moods – only Bach can claim to do that – but it offers plenty of variety and it certainly has its appeal. I’m as bored as the next person by the truly turgid – I have long failed to see why Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder receives such adulation when I would rather rename them the Drearylieder – but I don’t find that quality in Rheinberger.
Nor can I endorse the same reviewer’s comment on the Fulda organ as emphasising the dreary qualities in the music. The organ is indeed weighty as the full specification given in the booklet, albeit in German only, makes plain. No history of the organ is given – presumably this was included in the notes to earlier volumes – but it is clear that the instrument is well suited to the whole, wide range of Rheinberger’s music. First built in 1713 by Adam Öhninger, it was reconstructed in 1877 by Sauer. The rebuild by Rieger Orgelbau, 1994-96, has enhanced its capabilities – more than half of the stops in the specification are listed as new – but left it as basically a splendid example of a ‘romantic organ’.
Rübsam is not a showy organist; like his former doctoral student Julia Brown in her contributions to Naxos’s complete Buxtehude organ music, he is content to take his time and let the music breathe in a way more appropriate to Rheinberger than to Buxtehude. His playing is always in tune with the varied moods of the music.
The recording is good throughout, impressively wide-ranging, with the ambience of the building well captured, but never allowed to muddy the sound. On earlier volumes Rübsam is credited as producer, engineer and editor, as he is on the Naxos Buxtehude recordings; I believe the ‘RMC Classical Music Inc., USA’ credited with those tasks on this CD to be none other than Rübsam himself again – quite an achievement.
The notes, by Keith Anderson, are brief but informative. I could have dispensed with the biographical material, repeated from earlier volumes and taking up over half the space, in favour of greater analysis of the music.
Brian Wilson


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