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Joseph Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839 - 1901)
Mass in C, opus 169

Cyrissa Anderson (Soprano)
JoAnn Stump (Alto)
David Ellwood (Tenor)
John Reschl (Bass)
Francis Slechta (Organ)
Church of the Holy Ghost choir and orchestra
Richard Robertson (Conductor)
Gerald NEAR (1942 - )
Veni Sancte Spiritus
Spiritus Domini
Missa Orbis Factor

Church of the Holy Ghost choir
Francis Slechta (Organ)
Richard Robertson (Conductor)
Recorded September, October 2001, Church of the Holy Ghost, Denver, Colorado, USA
LISZT DIGITAL LD001 [51.59]

If Rheinberger is known at all today, it is for his organ music. He wrote twenty sonatas for organ. But his musical productions were far more varied than we could guess from the record catalogue. Besides operas, oratorios, cantatas and orchestra works he wrote twelve masses. The one on this disc was originally written for choir and orchestra, but is given here in the composer's version for choir, strings and organ.

Rheinberger was well known in his day, and his works are characterised by a solidity of construction. But today's audience has a tendency to view him as a stuffy and unimaginative Victorian. Never a Wagnerian, Rheinberger's technique, with its clarity, classic structure and lack of overtly emotional content, mitigated against his popularity. By the time of his death his works were regarded as old-fashioned.

Fortunately, there is nowadays a tendency to re-evaluate composers regarded as old-fashioned in their day and much solidly constructed, imaginative music has come back into the catalogue. So it is welcome that the choir of the Church of the Holy Ghost in Denver have issued this disc. The choir has a professional core along with some additional amateur singers. The choir also provides the soloists for the Rheinberger mass.

Rheinberger's Mass in C is well made and attractive, melodic with harmony that, generally, would not have surprised Schubert or Brahms. The musical setting would make an attractive foil for mass, but the material can be rather unmemorable. It is attractive in its way but you do not come out humming the melodies and the harmony rather lacks spice.

Rheinberger rather has a tendency to start a movement in a particular style and motor on in that fashion. This works quite well in the lovely lyrical Kyrie with its rocking string accompaniment. The Christus being marked by the entry of the soloists rather than a significant change to the musical material. The Gloria starts in a vigorous manner and strides along in the same way, irrespective of the words, until the soloists provide a pause at the words 'Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris', but when the chorus take over at 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' the opening material re-appears. The Gloria concludes with a substantial fugal setting of the final words, 'Cum Sancto Spiritu'. The Credo does have a little more variety, but harmonic and melodic interest is subsumed in the necessity to keep the words audible. The Sanctus, Benedictus (a completely separate movement) and Agnus Dei function well as single mood pieces. The effect is rather like a well made suite, but it seems to lack a degree of fervour and a felicitous eye for verbal detail that brings out the religious meaning of the words.

I was slightly puzzled by the companion works. It would surely have made sense to fill up the record (the Rheinberger mass lasts around 30 minutes) with some of Rheinberger's shorter choral and orchestral pieces. Instead we get two motets and a mass by Gerald Near, a contemporary American composer.

Near's music is conservative in idiom. The items on this record are heavily plainchant based, the sort of music that is probably part of the backbone of the choir's regular liturgical repertoire. Useful music in its way, it does not necessarily represent the best of the composer.

In the anthem 'Veni Sancte Spiritus' (Come Thou Holy Spirit, Come), the opening verses are all sung in unison by the women or the men, with a substantial organ accompaniment. As the motet develops, then the chorus venture into harmony, but the plainchant is never far away and the organ part seems to support the main harmonic interest. I would guess that this piece could be well within the capabilities of many church choirs, which is admirable. It is a well made piece, but I would have liked to have heard something that challenged the choir a little more.

The anthem 'Spiritus Domine' (The Spirit of the Lord), the plainchant is not so close to the surface, the text is an assemblage of words taken from Wisdom and John's Gospel along with the first verse of 'Veni Creator Spiritus' (Come, Holy Ghost, our Souls Inspire). The opening remains relatively simple for the choir, but they are supported by a wonderfully atmospheric Howells-like organ part. As this Anthem develops, the chorus finally get to sing a more developed four-part texture with discreet organ accompaniment, still in the Howells manner.

The 'Missa Orbis Factor' (Maker of the World) uses the plainchant mass of the same name as its foundation and the plainchant weaves its way in and out of the texture in an effective manner. Unfortunately I felt that Maurice Duruflé had done this better in his 'Missa cum Jubilo', also based on a plainchant mass. Whether in the orchestral or the organ version, in 'Missa cum Jubilo' Duruflé evinces a more imaginative ear for sonorities and harmonic daring when combining the plainchant with other musics.

The Kyrie resolutely uses the plainchant either in unison or harmonised simply, with a substantial organ accompaniment. Near is adept at giving harmonic interest to pieces by writing substantial organ parts. The Gloria is rather more developed but the plainchant atmosphere returns for the opening of the Sanctus. In an striking effect. this gives way dramatically to the solo organ, to be followed by an unaccompanied Hosanna. The prevailing, gentle chant-like mood return in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

The Near pieces receive decent performances here and the mass must be useful to have in the church choir's repertoire. Near has written quite a lot of church music for choirs in America, but this mass seems to be the first of his major choral works to reach the CD catalogue. Previous appearances in the catalogue have been restricted to organ music and shorter choral works. Welcome as it is to hear music by this composer, I would hope that someone might record some of his more challenging choral music, rather than the, admittedly effective, 'gebrauchsmusik' that we have here.

This disc makes attractive listening, the music is well constructed and receives generally strong performances. For those interested in Rheinberger, the disc is a gift. For others, the disc has more limited attractions but I hope that the disc does tempt other choirs into performing this well made music.

Robert Hugill



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