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Johann RUFINATSCHA (1812-1893)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1846) (wind and brass parts reconstructed by Michael F P Huber, 2012) [48:20]
Concert aria: Ingeborgs Klage for soprano and orchestra [7:22]
Concert aria: Der Schwur am Grabe der Mutter for bass and orchestra [10:26]
Concert aria: Erwartung for soprano and orchestra [12:41]
Belinda Loukota (soprano)
Andreas Mattersberger (bass-baritone)
Orchester der Akademie St. Blasius/Karlheinz Siessl
rec. 23-25 November 2012, Kaiser-Leopold-Saal der Theologischen Fakultät, Innsbruck; Aula Magna Uberschulezentrum, Mals im Vinschgau, Südtirol
MUSIKMUSEUM 21 CD13020 [78:49]

I first discovered the music of Johann Rufinatscha when a friend alerted me to an enthusiastic mention of him on a classical discussion board. Fond as I am of unearthing hidden gems from the obscure repertoire, I investigated the composer and wound up acquiring the recording of his sixth symphony that had elicited the enthusiasm. I’m very glad I did.

Before proceeding further, let me mention something about the numbering of Rufinatscha’s symphonies. When they were recorded, it was thought that there were six symphonies. To avoid confusion among the CD-buying public I will use the numbering listed on all the recordings, not the attempted re-numbering undertaken after the fact, when further research revealed that he may only have actually completed five symphonies.

Johann Rufinatscha was born in the Austrian Tyrol in 1812 and lived till 1893. However, like Rossini before him and Sibelius after him, he stopped composing in his last decades. This left him with a small, but finely crafted corpus of works that included the aforementioned five symphonies, a string serenade, overtures, concert arias, a piano concerto, half a dozen chamber pieces, piano pieces and some lieder. His first works were written in the 1830s when he was a young man in his twenties, and his last were written in the 1860s, when he was in his fifties.

How to describe Rufinatscha’s music to those unfamiliar with it? To my ears his music is in a direct line from late Mozart, through Beethoven, to Schubert, with the last mentioned perhaps the greatest influence. Not surprising since he studied under composition teacher Simon Sechter in Vienna, just a few years after Schubert had also sought him out. Some commentators have mentioned Bruckner as a point of reference but I confess that after hearing every Rufinatscha piece recorded, I do not hear anything of Bruckner in any of them - which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Schubert of the “Great C Major” symphony would give one an idea of his sound-world in his maturity.

So what of the disc we have to consider here, which contains Rufinatscha’s third symphony, and three concert arias? First, this disk is one of a series issued by the Tiroler Ferdinandeum Museum in Innsbruck, the holder of the composer’s manuscripts. This series has included virtually every major piece by Rufinatscha and it has been a labour of love for the financially strapped institution to finance these recordings. It should be mentioned at the outset that the third symphony exists only as a set of string parts. The rest of the instruments are missing. Thus, the producers had to commission a reconstruction of the piece. To accomplish this task they chose the modern Tyrolean composer Michael F.P. Huber. Reconstructing another composer’s work is obviously an extremely difficult and often thankless task. To succeed one must first have an intimate knowledge of the composer’s style. Second, one must be totally self-effacing and keep one’s own compositional style out of the mix. In this case, Mr. Huber was not faced with orchestrating a piece in piano reduction — which is difficult enough — but had to literally compose all the wind, brass, and percussion parts, guided by the string parts. So how did he do? I would answer that he was only partially successful. Familiar as I am with all of Rufinatscha’s orchestral works, I had the distinct feeling, listening to the symphony, that the composer would not have written it this way. Mr. Huber put some of his own compositional personality into the piece, and the strings sometimes feel like they are working at cross-purposes with the remaining instruments. This is not to say it’s a bad job. Mr. Huber made a valiant effort with a difficult task but it could have been done better.

Rufinatscha’s third symphony, which is in C Minor, starts with a restless moderato introduction and then launches into a stormy allegro. This is followed by a more lyrical second theme. In the development, the composer plays with fragments of both themes, interweaving and juxtaposing them in ingenious ways, before storming to his conclusion. The second movement begins with a very Schubertian melody which is eventually interrupted by a martial theme reminiscent of Beethoven, before the gentle melody returns. The third movement is a classic Beethovenian scherzo, complete with a lengthy trio that unfortunately overstays its welcome. It is in this trio that Mr. Huber perhaps committed his greatest faux pas, with odd brass and percussive effects that Rufinatscha would hardly have used. The powerful finale is a driving and memorable allegro with stabbing rhythms. The movement briefly turns to a more lyrical melody, but this is interrupted and eventually overwhelmed by the driving rhythms which take us to an exciting conclusion.

The disk is rounded out by three dramatic concert arias, two for soprano and one for bass, that are well sung by Belinda Loukota and Andreas Mattersberger. Throughout, the Orchestra of St. Blasius, conducted by Karlheinz Siessl, give their all. What they lack in polish they make up for in enthusiasm. The recorded sound is a little dry but not excessively so.

So is this the disk to start with if you want to explore Rufinatscha? I think not. I would start with the composer’s magnificent sixth, and final, symphony, then continue with the disk containing symphonies two and five. For all of Rufinatscha’s works, the Tyrol recordings are the only ones, with the exception of the sixth symphony, which was also recorded, along with an overture, by Chandos with Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic. Which recording to get? Well, Noseda is a fine conductor and the BBCPO is a polished ensemble, but I prefer Edgar Seipenbusch and the Cappella Istropolitana on the Tyrol label. The BBC sounds like they are in a hurry to get the recording session over with and get home to dinner. Not surprising considering they had to learn a long and difficult piece they would most likely never play again. Seipenbusch and his orchestra however, only a shade less polished, sound as if they are revelling in the music and bursting with home-town pride and the joy of discovery. The fifth symphony, recorded by the same forces, is almost equally magnificent, and the pairing with the youthful second symphony is delightful.

When considering obscure repertoire there is always the temptation to say if the music was forgotten, it must have been forgotten for a good reason. After all, the judgment of time, the winnowing process of generations of musicologists and music audiences, usually, but not always, gets it right. No one will deny that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et al are supreme geniuses. However, in a second tier, under these towering figures, are innumerable talented composers with something to say and music worth hearing. Rufinatscha is assuredly one of these figures. Allow yourself a treat and give him a listen.

Andrew Hartman
Previous review: Bob Stevenson



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