Josef Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839–1901)
Jürg Hanselmann (piano)
Sandra Hanselman-Kästli (piano) (CDs 9-10, Duos)
rec. 1990-2004, Pianohaus Probst Chur, Eschen and the Vuduzer Saal and auditorium, Kantonsschule Sargans
For complete track listings see end of review
CARUS 83.365 [10 CDs: 11:10:00]

Renowned and respected in his lifetime, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger was soon forgotten after his death. The sheer breadth of his creative output and the lack of any one ‘hit’ work which would ensure his name remaining in the public’s consciousness meant he would take a back seat to the wider public. Han Theill’s extensive booklet notes for this release describe Rheinberger as a ‘universalist’. His undisputed importance as a composer and the revival of much of his sacred and secular choral music and organ music has even now seen the rest of his work largely relegated to the background. There is a great deal to be discovered however, and on this collection Jürg Hanselmann Rheinberger has recorded Rheinberger’s complete piano works with opus numbers, with in the works for four hands his wife Sandra Hanselmann-Kästli.

These ten discs represent a 14 year recording project, and were previously released individually on the Prezioso label. Such a vast mountain of music is daunting enough to review let alone record, but there are some aspects of this set which can give a good general impression. A look at the listings for each CD show a mixture of opus numbers, and there is a good reason for this. Rather than go at the works chronologically or by genre, Hanselmann elected to make each disc a recital in its own right, so works have been selected to make contrasts and provide a satisfying programme. For instance, the powerful and at times breathtakingly virtuoso Sinfonische Sonate Nr. 1 in C is set against the relatively light, at times almost Schubertian Sonate Nr. 2 in Des Op.99. To me, this seems an excellent solution, indeed probably the only way of recording Rheinberger’s piano works without overheating our senses with what can become quite a rich diet of romantic repertoire. There is a useful cross-referenced list by opus number in the booklet, so tracing any one piece is easy enough.

There are surprisingly playful pieces all over the place in this collection, and something like the little music-box Idylle from the Drei Studien Op.6 will jump out and make you smile every time. CD 7 takes us to further degrees of charm in the set of three melodic pieces Aus Italien Op.29 which have built-in salon popularity. Rheinberger doesn’t shock with revolutionary radical ideas, and neither do his forms go beyond examples which can be found from the great masters. He once ironically described himself as a ‘learned’ universalist, but his clear academic mastery thankfully doesn’t result in dry and dull music. Each piece is well proportioned and sounds ‘right’, but most are also satisfying in more intangible ways. Rheinberger’s sense of fun is never too far away from the surface in his smaller scale work, such as the Drei Stücke Op.78, in which a three-part fugue in waltz tempo is surrounded by a bouncy Scherzino and a Menuetto with a chuckling mid-section to contrast with the more solemn cadences of its principal theme.

As an organist, it’s not surprising that there are a few fugues and toccatas around, but these are more often than not of the lively and entertaining kind. The Tonstücke in fugierter Form which occupy CD 5 are full of surprises, from the energetic to the lyrical via the searching expressiveness of something like the Andante teneramente from the Op.39 set. The Improvisation Op.51 which works on music from Mozart’s Zauberflöte might also be a suspect for organ origins, but Rheinberger’s writing is rarely less than pianistic, and it would be hard to imagine such a piece played on anything other than a symphony orchestra if alternatives were to be on offer. Rheinberger’s titles are often less than inspiring, but these shouldn’t put anyone off. The Vordragsstudien such as the Op.101 set on CD 9 have as much verve and sparkle as any other the other pieces, and an Etude which bears comparison with Chopin. It’s fascinating to hear the development between these and the earlier simplicity of the Op.9 set on CD 8, which is presented almost alongside the more mature and reflective works of Op.66.

The largest scale sonatas and some of the last opus numbers appear early on in the collection, and it is here we have the composer in full creative flow. The Op.99 and Op.135 sonatas, together with the Op.122 sonata for piano four hands represent the pinnacle of Rheinberger’s work in this form, and push the limits of his compositional technique within conventional forms laid down by Schubert and others. These works don’t have quite the thematic distinctiveness of Schubert, but have plenty of meat on the bones of their structure. The most adventurous harmonically is the Sinfonische Sonate Op.47, which begins in C major and ends in A minor.

The series of recordings builds nicely to have the four –hand and two piano works as last programmed, and the final disc contains some large scale works such as the Grosse Sonate Op.13 which ends with an Alla Tarantella movement, as well as the Op.13 Tarantella, which is great fun, and of which a page of the autograph manuscript is reproduced in the booklet. The A minor Duo Op.13 has some lovely flowing themes and a fascinating interplay between the instruments which makes one wish he had done more for this instrumentation.

With a consistently rich and detailed piano sound in the recordings and superb playing throughout, this set is a feast for the piano buff and collector of romantic repertoire. With the CDs arranged as they are it is easy to dip into the collection and come back to it later without the feeling you’re ‘losing your place’ somewhere: just pick a recital and relish the experience. Josef Rheinberger’s music is not written for ‘effect’, but inhabits a world where music is the essence of life – something which is perhaps not uncommon for musicians of his time, but which is rarely expressed with such voluminous scale of character.

Dominy Clements

A feast for piano buffs.

Complete track listings

CD 1 [71:26]
Sonate Nr. 3 in Es Op.135 [28:17]
Romantische Sonate Nr. 4 in fis Op.184 [31:17]
Toccatina Op.19 [3:02]
Toccata Op.115 [8:15]

CD 2 [75:15]
Sinfonische Sonate Nr. 1 in C Op.47 [24:05]
Sonate Nr. 2 in Des Op.99 [22:44]
Präludium und Fuge Op.33 [14:17]
Etude und Fugato Op.42 [4:59]
Drei kleine Konzerstücke Op.5 [6:18]

CD 3 [78:27]
Jagd-Szene WoO 1 [6:12]
Vier Klavierstücke Op.1 [14:20]
Waldmärchen (1866) Op.8 [8:01]
Humoresken Op.28 [10:16]
Toccata in e-Moll Op.104 [7:56]
Scherzoso Op.45 [3:32]
Capriccio Op.45 [5:02]
Capriccio alla Tarantella Op.53 [4:04]
Rhapsodie Op.53 [5:14]
Rondoletto Op.53 [5:05]
Waldmärchen (1897) Op.8 [7:24]

CD 4 [69:10]
24 Präludien in Etüdenform Op.14 [52:50]
Fünf Tonbilder Op.11 [16:20]

CD 5 [69:00]
Sechs Tonstücke in fugierter Form Op.39 [23:53]
Sechs Tonstücke in fugierter Form Op.68 [25:30]
Fantasiestück Op.23 [10:09]
Capriccio giocoso op.43 [8:09]

CD 6 [77:35]
Drei Stücke Op.78 [10:12]
Pianoforte-Studien für die linke Hand allein Op.113 [28:42]
Zwölf Vortragsstudien Op.183[38:28]

CD 7 [67:07]
Improvisation Op.51 [12:05]
Drei Studien Op.6 [9:51]
Drei Charakterstücke Op.7 [13:52]
Aus Italien Op.29 [11:47]
Sechs charakteristische Stücke Op.67 [18:30]

CD 8 [75:21]
Etüde in d-Moll RhWV deest [2:28]
Etüde in gis-Moll WoO 28 [2:20]
Fünf Vortragsstudien Op.9 [4:08]
Zum Abschied Op.59 [6:59]
Drei Vortragsstudien Op.66 [19:15]
Zwolf Charakterstücke in kanonischer Form Op.180 [30:12]

CD 9 [62:44]
Thema mit Veränderungen Op.61 [24:42]
Toccata in g-Moll Op.12 [7:54]
Drei Vortragsstudien Op.101 [12:29]
Aus den Ferientagen Op.72 [17:18]

CD 10 [63:01]
Tarantella in B-Dur Op.13 [4:29]
Große Sonate in c-Moll Op.122 [27:00]
Fantasie in es-Moll Op.79 [13:17]
Duo in a-Moll Op.15 [17:39]