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
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
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
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.