Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839-1901) The Complete Organ Sonatas
Roger Sayer (organ)
rec. 2015/16, Temple Church, London PRIORY RECORDS PRCD1165 [6 CDs: 437:55]
If ever there was a national composer, Joseph Rheinberger is it; a search for composers from Liechtenstein reveals just two, and I am afraid that I have never heard of Marco Schädler (b. 1964), the other composer who pops up. Reinberger was born in Vaduz, the capital of the Principality, where his father worked as the treasurer to the prince. He was something of a child prodigy and by the age of seven he was already serving as the organist of Vaduz parish church, composing his first work at the age of eight. After a period of private study, he entered the Munich Conservatorium in 1851, despite his father’s initial reluctance for his son to become a musician. After graduation he soon became a professor of piano and composition there, with his students including George Whitfield Chadwick, and most notably, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Strauss and the conductor-composer Wilhelm Furtwängler. His early musical style was influenced by Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann, although it was Brahms who was to be the greatest influence on his mature style, which can be clearly seen in his piano music.
When it comes to the music of Joseph Rheinberger there are several fine recordings, he is regarded as one of the most significant composers of church music in the second half of the nineteenth century, so it is no wonder that these recordings gravitate towards his choral and organ music, but he proved himself to have been a very versatile composer. I have a number of the wonderful Carus recordings of his choral music, as well as four CPO discs of his organ music, with only one of these (999 351-2) presenting any of his sonatas, Nos. 2 in A flat Major and 4 in A minor, this disc also includes his Six Religious Songs and two of his Elegiac Songs for baritone and organ. These songs show the composers preparedness to treat the organ in diverse ways, this can be further seen in his chamber pieces for strings and organ. Carus have also recorded discs of his orchestral music, secular choral music, a singspiel entitled DasZauberwort and an excellent set of his complete piano music (83.365), which I recommend tracking down if you can. However, it is the organ music that seems to be the mainstay of recordings, with MDG having released a twelve-disc set of his complete works, something that has been on my wish list since it was released.
When it comes to his organ music, the organ sonatas form the backbone of his oeuvre, composed over a 33-year period between 1868 and 1901; indeed the F Major Sonata proved to be the composer’s final completed work. They are like all his music, late romantic and filled with some glowing themes. If we start with the two sonatas that I know, the opening movement of the Op. 65 has a harmonically sumptuous introduction, which heralds Rheinberger’s position as not just a composer but as an Organist-composer; here is a composer who certainly knows his way around the instrument. The opening movement is divided in to two with the Grave section here banded together with the following Allegro, it is given separate tracks on the CPO disc, with a chorale like theme being the link between the two sections. The Adagio expressivo movement is typical Rheinberger with large romantic sweeps of music giving it an almost meditative feel. The final movement Fuga: Allegro is an impassioned piece of music that gives the Sonata an almost cyclical feel, with flashes of both the first and second movements’ main themes appearing in the final fugue.
The Sonata No 4 in A minor held a special place for Joseph Rheinberger, with it, and its predecessor having been based upon Psalm tunes. Here, the use of the Tonus peregrinus tune as a set of variations, sometimes led this Sonata to be known as the ‘Magnificat Sonata’ because of Martin Luther’s use of the same tune in his translation of the Magnificat. However, what must be remembered here is that Rheinberger intended his sonatas for concert use and not for use in the church, although the only times that I have heard any of the composer’s organ sonatas performed live was in church services, mainly choral evensong, and the use of separate movements worked well in context with the choral pieces. The second movement IntermezzoAndantino is an idyll like piece that Rheinberger later utilised in his Andante pastorale for oboe and organ and as the shepherd’s music of his Christmas cantata The Star of Bethlehem. The final Fuga Cromatica: Tempo moderato, is again somewhat cyclical in the way that the psalm tune once again appears, although the main theme of the movement is original.
Here the performance seems a little more measured than that by Jürgen Sonnentheil on CPO, with all but the final movement of the Fourth Sonata being marginally quicker, but it is in the finale of this Sonata, which whilst only 40 seconds slower, that the greater emphasis and clarity of this music bursts forth, Roger Sayer here bringing out every nuance of this music.
If we look at some of the middle sonatas I particularly like the B minor Sonata No. 10; it opens with a moderately paced Prelude and wonderful Fugue section announced on the pedals, whilst the second movement opens with a simple theme in G Major before a series of variations, with the final variation, the seventh I think, climaxing and then gradually growing quieter. The final movement Fantasy and Finale, like the first, shows the influence of Bach, but Bach seen through the eyes of a romantic master, with Harvey Grace, the organist and editor of the 1925 edition of the Rheinberger Sonatas, describing the music as “one of Rheinberger’s most attractive movements”, even going as far to describe it as being “jolly”.
Another of the middle sonatas is the eighth, one of the best known of the twenty, which is largely due to the final movement Passacaglia, one of the longest single movements in the set. It has become an examination piece for organists and is the only such sonata movement composed by Rheinberger. Harvey Grace describes it as the “crowning glory” of the Sonata, and it is not difficult to hear why.
The D Major Sonata No. 15 was composed around the same time as the wonderful C major Mass for four soloists, chorus and orchestra. The final movement, the longest single movement, is marked as Introduction and Ricercare, which Grace suggests is a reason for this sonata’s apparent neglect, the term Ricercare often being seen as suggesting dry and academic music, but I certainly agree with Grace’s view that this movement is anything but dry.
The G sharp minor Sonata No. 16 is one of the most significant of his later sonatas, if not of the sonatas in total, with Grace pointing to it’s standing apart from the other sonatas due to its “style and flavour”. It is cast in three movements and there is a very good performance of it by the present performer on YouTube which highlights both the use of the manuals and the pedals. It is the oddly named second movement, Scandanavisch, which Grace points to as having been composed during a visit to Northern Europe, that gives the Sonata its unique position, and a romanticism often found in the music of Grieg. Grace goes on to state that this is “one of the best slow movements”. This leads into a final movement Introduction and Fugue, with the Fugue section coming in about two and a half minutes into the movement, and being a wonderful example of Rheinberger’s ability to compose fugues. This is one of his finest.
The twentieth and final sonata is “so beautiful and youthful” according to the Dutch composer and organist Samuel de Lange. Rheinberger had sent the F Major to Lange, who was due to perform the F Major Organ Concerto which was completed shortly before he began work on this Sonata. The Sonata bares the title Zur Friedensfeire or ‘To Celebrate Peace’, and it has been suggested that this is in reference to the peace conference that had taken place in The Hague, also that it could have been in response to a new muse, Henriette Hecker, whom the composer had recently met; this would not really account for the sub-title though. It is an interesting Sonata, the opening Praeludium is based on two themes, one of which could be described as a hymn of peace; the second movement, Intermezzo, begins in a hymn-like vein before more interesting and elaborate music develops and takes over. The third movement, Pastorale, is a musical idyll, somewhat akin to Sonata No. 4 in its depiction of country life. The fourth movement is simply called Finale; it opens with a flourish before a contrasting middle section that gives way to a more impressive and grandiose concluding section.
This is a wonderful set, one that has already given me great listening pleasure, and one which, I imagine, will go on to do so for a long time. Roger Sayer proves himself to be an apt interpreter of Josef Rheinberger’s wonderful music; his playing is, as already stated, superior to that of Jürgen Sonnentheil on CPO in the two sonatas that he performs on his disc. The excellence that Sayer shows in those two sonatas is continued on into the other eighteen, so much so that I hope that Priory gives him an opportunity to record further recitals of the composer’s music. The recorded sound, as you would imagine from Priory, the organ specialist, is excellent, you get a real sense of a natural acoustic. The booklet notes, which draw upon the notes by Harvey Grace for his edition of the organ sonatas are informative and give great insight into the music; full details are given of the wonderful sounding Harrison and Harrison Organ of The Temple Church, making this a most desirable and valuable release.
Organ Sonata No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 119 [22:16]
Organ Sonata No. 7 in F minor, Op. 127 [21:58]
Organ Sonata No. 10 in B minor, Op. 146 [23:05]
Organ Sonata No. 16 in G sharp minor, Op. 175 [21:42]
Organ Sonata No. 17 in B major, Op. 181 [21:38]
Organ Sonata No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 154 [23:22]
Organ Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 27 [12:14]
Organ Sonata No. 18 in A major, Op. 188 [22:18]
Organ Sonata No. 14 in C major, Op. 165 [25:55]
Organ Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 168 [26:01]
Organ Sonata No. 11 in D minor, Op. 148 [24:02]
Organ Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op. 98 [17:53]
Organ Sonata No. 2 in A-Flat Major, Op. 65 "Fantasie" [18:39]
Organ Sonata No. 3 in G Major, Op. 88 "Pastoral" [13:47]
Organ Sonata No. 20 in F Major, Op. 196 "Zur Friedensfeier"[28:40]
Organ Sonata No. 8 in E minor, Op. 132 [26:02]
Organ Sonata No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 111 [18:32]
Organ Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 193 [27:08]
Organ Sonata No. 9 in B flat minor, Op. 142 [22:31]
Organ Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 161 [22:12]
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