Johann RUFINATSCHA (1812-1893)
Die Braut von Messina (Bride of Messina), overture [14:11]
Symphony No 6, in D major [56:55]
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 8-9 November 2010, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England
CHANDOS CHAN 10665 [71:05]
“Who was Johann Rufinatscha?” You’ll be asking that question looking at the CD cover, probably in mystified curiosity. You’ll be asking it again after hearing the music offered here, but with a much different tone of voice: respect, surprise, and that same curiosity renewed.
As best we can ascertain, for the facts are surprisingly elusive, Johann Rufinatscha was a fairly significant figure in Vienna’s musical scene from 1835 until his apparent retirement in the 1860s. During that time he made an exciting initial splash on the scene with five symphonies and some considerable chamber music. Brahms sought Rufinatscha’s approval when he arrived in Vienna - the future legend was 29, the older man 50 - and included Rufinatscha in his musical circle thereafter. But Rufinatscha had already begun to fall silent: he produced only one symphony, No 6, between 1850 and his death in 1893, to go with a piano sonata and not much else.
For whatever reason, the composer opted to spend the last forty-odd years of his life in semi-retirement. His career as a teacher, however, continued unabated. Playing connect-the-dots with Rufinatscha’s pupils is fascinating: his composition student Julius Epstein accepted Gustav Mahler into the Vienna Conservatory and taught Mahler piano for two years; another student was Ignaz Brüll, friend of Brahms and Goldmark. One of the other leading teachers in Vienna, Simon Sechter, considered Bruckner his best, most dedicated student, and though there is no direct link yet established between Rufinatscha and Sechter, the sound-world of Bruckner’s Symphony No 00 (the “Study Symphony”) is, in light of this disc, recognizably and powerfully in the Rufinatscha vein. Perhaps he did, indeed, study the older symphonist, who also hailed from rural Austria.
The two works offered here are among Rufinatscha’s last, even though they date from his middle age. The Bride of Messina overture is from 1850, his last truly productive year, and the Symphony No. 6 from some time in the early 1860s, at about the same time as Bruckner was set to write the 00 by his new teacher, the conductor Otto Kitzler. Rufinatscha’s significance, as heard here, is as a “missing link” between Beethoven and Schubert, on one side, and Brahms and Bruckner on the other.
This is especially clear in the symphony: though Schubert’s Ninth was still unknown at the time it was being composed, the Rufinatscha work sounds uncannily like that masterpiece, especially in the first movement, which (after a fairly solemn introduction) is flecked with Schubertian wit, colors and tunes. Alan Howe, an advocate of the composer who originally forwarded rare Austrian recordings of the music to Chandos and to several online message boards (where I first heard it several years ago), told me that “If Schubert 9 was the ‘Great C major’, surely this was the ‘Great D major’!” Stylistically, the point does stand. We’ve got a massive first movement, predominantly in a lyrical-heroic vein, then a nearly-as-long scherzo with an opening theme in which - do we hear snatches of the ländler?
The scherzo is catchy and Rufinatscha’s lyrical trio material contrasts nicely with the elegant - maybe a little too staid - dance of the opening. The slow movement seems to creep in from another world: it only hints at melody, the narrative slipping by in easy lyricism and seeking out darker corners. It’s unsettling, to be sure, a tough movement to crack, a bit like if Schumann was tasked with scoring Sibelius’ Fourth. The finale is a bit of a let-down, though, chopped into several sections and lacking the big tune and/or flashy orchestration which such an epic symphony (an hour long!) really calls for.
The Bride of Messina overture begins promisingly, with an introduction that starts on a very big scale before exploring some chamber-like textures involving solo string players. The main body of the movement, though, is rather haphazardly organized around some not-too-distinguished tunes.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a particularly hard time imagining the performances here being bettered: no-one can fault the technical excellence of the BBC Philharmonic, which we should not take for granted in such big, complicated scores, but there’s sometimes a certain lack of inspiration or commitment in the phrasing. Gianandrea Noseda seems content to let Rufinatscha’s odder ideas pass by unhighlighted, the way that Rufinatscha’s own contemporaries were fond of glossing over Schubert’s often-quirky scoring. Even the first movement’s main theme is an example. Parts of the overture, especially, would have benefited from an extra jolt of energy and incisiveness; too many sharp edges are rounded off. And, though I know it’s important to treat this symphony right in its premiere performance, did we really need every single repeat observed in the scherzo?
The value of this release is primarily musicological: Johann Rufinatscha is fairly clearly a figure who somehow got lost in the historical shuffle despite absorbing the influence of Schubert, composing music which did not imitate Beethoven at any point, and leaving his minor mark on Brahms and (very probably) a young Bruckner. Schubert and Schumann are never very far away, and Bruckner’s early work is just about next-door. Brahms waited another decade before attempting to conquer the symphonic form, but the Sixth does sound rather like a hypothetical Grand Symphony composed in the manner of the Brahms serenades. I suspect the Sixth Symphony is not Rufinatscha’s masterwork - based on excerpts I’ve heard in the past, that would be the Fifth, which is up next in the Chandos series and which I anticipate very eagerly - but this is still mandatory listening for the German romantic aficionado.
Recording projects by the likes of Chandos, CPO, Tudor, and Naxos have revealed a really fascinating landscape in 1830s-1860s Europe: Jeanne-Louise Farrenc’s three fantastic symphonies from France, in a sterner and more Beethovenian language than Mendelssohn managed; Jan Kalliwoda’s vividly colorful cycle, by turns Mozartean and distinctively Czech, his masterful Symphony No. 5 a moving tragedy with a considerable third-movement surprise; Niels W. Gade’s fresh Northern approach to short, charming symphonies of classical proportions; Joachim Raff’s enormous contributions to nearly every field as a sort of clearing-house for all the styles and ideas circulating at the time. Antonín Dvořák’s first five symphonies also predate Brahms’ first. Bruckner’s 00, and No 1, like Dvořák’s works are a beginning-point on an unprecedented journey. Now we will need to add Johann Rufinatscha to the portrait. Where he fits in is not clear yet, but - though he may not be as original or memorable, on the present evidence, as contemporaries like Kalliwoda or Dvořák - he may be a good deal closer to the center of the portrait than you may have guessed.
Listen past the not-always-inspired playing, to a vital missing link between Schubert and Bruckner.