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Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Der Stern von Bethlehem, Op.164 (1890) [46:50]
Advent Motets, Op.176 (1893) [18:42]
Dilek Gecer (soprano), Michael Junge (baritone)
Dresden University Choir
Vogtland Philharmonic Orchestra/Stefan Fraas
rec. 20-21 December 1998, 7 February 1999. Lukaskirche, Dresden

The name of Joseph Rheinberger – probably Liechtenstein’s most famous musical son – is well known to organists. His 20 sonatas for the instrument were for many decades staples of the recitalist’s repertory. Opinions differ, but a widely-held view is that these Sonatas include a few islands of musical interest set amidst vast oceans of turgidity, and in recent years they have not only fallen out of favour, but taken the name of the composer down with them. And that is a pity, for, while the organ was certainly the principal focus of his work, when he wrote for it in combination with other instruments, he often seemed almost inspired. His two organ concertos deserve a wider hearing than they get, as do his chamber works involving the organ; the Suite for organ, violin and cello is a work of great distinction and well worth seeking out, despite the paucity of its representation on disc. He also completed two symphonies, a handful of operas (although only two were ever performed), and a large body of choral music including around a dozen Masses, three Requiems, and the cantata Der Stern von Bethlehem (“The Star of Bethlehem”) which might be regarded as his most intense and personal work.
The text, in nine parts following the story of Christ’s birth, was by Rheinberger’s wife, the poet Franziska von Hoffnaass, who died while he was still working on The Star of Bethlehem. Overcome with grief, he never heard the work performed, despite its popularity in his own lifetime. He later said of the work, “The real nerve of music is the longing for happiness that always recedes before us”. While the German text is given in the booklet, there are no translations. The work is scored for two soloists, large orchestra (including, of course, an organ) and four-part chorus.
It has appeared on CD before - Rob Barnett found it “far too good to be heard only at Christmas”, when he reviewed a Carus CD reissue of a 1968 recording from Munich (review) - but it never seems to have excited much interest otherwise and, so far as I can make out, there have only ever been three complete recordings of the work, and none made this century. This new release from ARS is simply a reissue of a recording first released on CD in 1999, and while it is good to have it back in the catalogue, how much better it would have been had ARS decided to record the work afresh. For, sad to relate, this is not a very good performance and only offers a rough idea of how fine this music really is. The two soloists do not seem entirely to get the measure of the work, with Dilek Gecer sounding robustly operatic as she sings of Mary’s humility and piousness, while Michael Junge sounds very earth-bound as he sings of the sense of anticipation hanging over Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth. The Dresden University Choir was obviously well-drilled for the recording sessions, but they sound almost over-rehearsed, possibly tired, and lacking the necessary enthusiasm to bring the music alive. As for the Vogtland Philharmonic, they can make a very fine sound, especially from the brass, but intonation in the strings is never really satisfactory and the overall tone is scratchy.

Alongside the cantata is a set of nine unaccompanied Latin motets for the season of Advent. The best that can be said of these is that they are worthy and would doubtless receive A grades if presented to a 19th century German professor of harmony and counterpoint. While the cantata often calls to mind the mature Mendelssohn, these Advent Motets have no clear sense of personality or style. While individually each one is competently sung by the Dresden singers, they often have difficulty holding the pitch, and the slight shift of tonality from one motet to the next is troublesome when listening to them in succession. Stefan Fraas puts a lot of effort into keeping them moving and holding the ensemble together, but he seems to work too hard to project the dynamic shading, with the result it all sounds rather forced.

Marc Rochester

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