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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]

When referring to the composer of the music presented on this CD the enthusiasm of the writer of the accompanying booklet knows no bounds. Johann Rufinatscha “is one of the great names in the nineteenth century Austrian romantic tradition and is doubtless the Tyrol’s most important symphonist”. His musical oeuvre is “hugely important in the context of the history of music in general”. Warning bells should immediately sound – for example who are/were the Tyrol’s other symphonists? – but we’ll let that pass for now. If, however, these statements are true why has this composer remained neglected and undiscovered until now? One only has to think of the contemporaneous music of Franz Berwald to know that it is perfectly possible for a composer of genius and originality to remain largely overlooked for a long time. So was Rufinatscha similarly such a composer and what do we know of him?

Well, it seems we know just about enough to sketch a somewhat incomplete picture of the life of this obscure individual. Born in Mals, on the edge of Bavaria, in 1812 into a poor family with no obvious musical connections or influences, the young Johann seems to have been inspired to follow a musical career for unspecified reasons. At an early age he must have demonstrated some talent because he was taken under the wing of one of the founders of the (college of the) Innsbruck Musical Society and he studied there, graduating with a distinction. This was followed by a period of study with the imperial court organist, Simon Sechter; “one of the most sought-after composition teachers of his time” who apparently numbered Bruckner amongst his pupils and “who had been sought out by Schubert shortly before he died”. During all this time the student was obviously the recipient of generous charitable support and he was required to pay some of it back by himself giving music and instrumental lessons. Presumably he supported himself this way throughout his life – composing only a slender corpus of works (see below). There is mention of first performances of one or two of these but, it seems, the composer failed to generate a following of any kind … or even subsequent performances. The booklet makes much of the fact that, although Rufinatscha might have moved in the circle of Brahms the latter’s extensive correspondence never mentions him. We are encouraged to wonder how this could be. A mystery.

Apparently the composer’s “star was on the wane” by 1869 and by 1873 he had ill-advisedly gambled his life savings on some shares and subsequently lost the lot. In spite of what must have been desperate circumstances he somehow managed to survive for a further twenty years, during which time he somewhat grandiosely decided to bequeath manuscript copies of a representative selection of his compositions to the Ferdinandeum Tyrolean State Museum. As the booklet puts it: “After his death in 1893 all the great Tyrolean composer’s compositions were left to the museum with the result that the Ferdinandeum today has in its keeping the special treasure that is Rufinatscha’s musical legacy. It is our heritage but it is also our mission to bring this heritage to the world.” So far I am reminded of the life of PDQ Bach but let us be charitable. What is this heritage?

Well, it seems that there are a handful of works for piano, five chamber works, a piano concerto, three overtures, a serenade for strings, a few concert arias and six symphonies. The symphonies survive in varying degrees of completion and the correction of some original confusion has meant that they have been subject to re-numbering fairly recently. The first and second of them (in D major and E flat major) date from 1832 and 1844 respectively. The work originally identified as the third in F major turned out to be a concert aria in the same key. The work that took its place in the canon, the principal focus of the current CD, seems to date from 1845/6 - being first performed in 1846. It survived in string parts only for some reason. The work originally identified as the fourth symphony in C minor is actually an undated symphonic torso of three movements that survives only in a reduction for piano–four hands. It was supplanted as the fourth numbered symphony by a work that had originally been numbered as the fifth in B minor (also from 1846?). Similarly, what had been known as the sixth in D major (1850?) was re-designated as number five.

The booklet writer is quite clear that: “The symphonies are without doubt some of the most important and most individual contributions to the genre between Schubert and Brahms” but I beg to differ. My own first acquaintance with one of these “important” works dates back to a broadcast of a BBC Philharmonic Orchestra CD recording, under Gianandrea Noseda, of what was then described as the sixth symphony. That Chandos CD was well received by several critics including MWI’s Brian Reinhart and the music was described by one as “bringing Schumann to mind had he chosen to orchestrate in a different manner”. I fear that I couldn’t be that enthusiastic about it or, indeed, generous. At the time it washed over me without being in any way memorable - or striking me as being worth resurrecting – despite the considerable musical credentials of the performers and a good recording.

Once we listen to the symphony on the present disc, the reasons for desperate and overblown special pleading become clearer. There are four movements that sound to me like a very amateur combination of very early Bruckner and sub-Farrenc. The first movement is a “weighty” Allegro that, according to the booklet note, has a theme like Mozart’s piano sonata K457 - although I was unable to discern this. If Rufinatscha was eclectic he didn’t have the talent to make it obvious. The music is thickly scored and, for most of the time, the composer seems disinclined to leave anybody out. There is a considerable amount of bluster, supported by the timpani, and such climaxes as, I assume, exist sound little different from anything else. The movement plods away in an unvaried tempo for fourteen long minutes, without any interesting melodies or real development, before it finally fades out unexpectedly. It is followed by a similarly charmless Andante in triple time. Apparently this borrows a theme from the Piano Concerto of 1850; you have been warned. In the third movement Scherzo and Trio the woodwind finally gets a chance to stand out a bit and slight similarities with the style of Bruckner are more apparent. Sadly, it seems that all repeats are observed and the movement is much too long for its material. Once again the timpani underpin rather too much. Incidentally, parts of the scherzo reappear in the Symphony No. 5 (formerly 6). I hadn’t noticed this but the themes are so uninspired that is hardly surprising. With the fourth movement Allegro Vivace we get to what the booklet note writer describes as: “The high-point of the symphony … an awesomely dramatic movement …”. I don’t know about drama but there is no shortage of volume and the extremely amateur-sounding main theme is belted out, sforzando. “Dramatic” actually translates here as thirteen more minutes of tedium. I really hate being so negative but there is, in my opinion, no question of this music being that of a forgotten genius. Like many nonentities Rufinatscha was obviously forgotten for very good reasons.

The fact that the museum only possessed the string parts of the symphony meant that it was necessary to find somebody to reconstruct the woodwind and brass parts before the symphony could be performed. The reconstruction was undertaken by the composer Michael F.P. Huber and he seems to have fully succeeded in impersonating the composer’s style and making those parts of the work as undistinguished as the rest of it. I wonder if he is also responsible for the rather excessive contribution of the timpani.

It must be difficult to find decent orchestras prepared to perform this stuff — and, quite frankly, I am amazed that a label like Chandos and an orchestra like the BBC Philharmonic can be bothered with it. The outfit on the present recording is puffed up, like the music, by the indefatigable booklet-note writer although their precise status is unclear. They sound like goodish amateurs or – at best – not particularly talented students. Hats off to them for effort but I’m afraid the performance doesn’t help the composer’s cause any more than the music. Strings are sometimes ragged and phrasing is only occasionally notable. Odd falterings in lower strings and brass have not been patched. Perhaps better conducting would make a difference: there is little attempt to vary tempi and there is barely any light or shade – although the main blame for this might again be with the composer. As for the recording it is clear but dead, with hardly any reverberation and occasional slight congestion. If the symphony were worth hearing this would be a pity but it really is not.

The couplings are three concert arias - two for soprano and orchestra framing one for bass and orchestra. The first, Ingeborg’s Lament, sets a text that was apparently also set by Bruch and Rheinberger. It is in B flat and is slow, in unwavering triple time, with characterless and uninspired orchestration, rarely straying from the home key in seven plus minutes. It might have been made more interesting with a slightly faster choice of tempo. The soprano is quite good with excellent intonation – although she has a distractingly fast vibrato and sings at a solid mezzo forte. The second aria, “The Oath by the Mother’s Graveside” is in C minor and, after a long introduction this plods along in a solid duple time. The fine bass sounds to be of the type to be found on many Bach recordings. He, too, has rather a fast vibrato but is none the worse for that. There is an unusual contribution from the contra-bassoon half-way through. The best of the three arias is the last one in A minor, Expectation, and this is probably the highlight of the disc. The soprano is in good form and there is an almost memorable tune which is treated to some development. We even get a key change and a tempo change in the middle of this one. In fact, there are also some similarities with Agathe’s key aria from Der Freischütz.

The booklet (in German and English), as already indicated, has been written by a Rufinatscha enthusiast who leaves no possible headroom to ponder the comparative merits of the likes of such composers as Berwald or Bruckner. It is a laborious read, despite the best efforts of the translator, and this is not helped by its colour scheme - pale blue type on a khaki background – which is almost as perverse as it could be for easy reading.

Familiar as I am with the amount of hard slog it takes to unearth, learn, perform and record works of neglected composers I have to say that I am impressed by the amount of effort that has obviously had to be expended to get this CD produced. That said, faced with compositions of this quality, I think I would have thrown in the towel long before getting this far. If it were not for the arias, the other symphony’s recording and mention of an obviously genuine Rufinatscha Festival in 2012 I would almost suspect some massive, elaborate and costly hoax or practical joke being perpetrated here. That said, the humour would have to be completely po-faced, without even the slightest twinkle, and I can’t believe such subtlety of this offering. All I can say is that this emperor does not appear to me to be wearing very much in the way of clothes.

Bob Stevenson



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