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Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in E flat, Op.77 [18:54]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op.105 [19:07]
Song transcriptions for violin and piano:
Op.4 No.1 - Vorüber [3:06]
Op.4 No.3 – Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen [1:58]
Op.41 No.7 – Im Sturm [2:09]
Thomas Schrott (violin)
Piero Barbareschi (piano)
rec. 2016, Circulo Officiali M.M. “Vittorio Veneto”, La Spezia, Italy

The music of Rheinberger has, until recently, been something of an unknown quantity for me. I have had the vague impression of a late nineteenth-century composer, known principally for his organ music, whose style otherwise made no significant advances beyond being vaguely like that of Mendelssohn (whose life overlapped with his by only eight years). I recall coming across the old Michael Ponti version of Rheinberger’s Piano Concerto many years ago and dismissing the music at the time as forgettable although, after listening to the recent recording by Simon Callaghan, I am prepared to accept that this dismissal was a little unfair. With all due respect to Ponti’s virtuosity Callaghan’s slightly greater subtlety – together with a rather better piano (and recording) – makes a difference. I was therefore interested to see what some of Rheinberger’s chamber music would sound like in a modern recording.

Born in Liechtenstein, Rheinberger showed the usual (for a composer/performer) exceptional musical promise at an early age, studied diligently at the Munich Conservatory and, soon after graduating, went on to assume the professorships of both organ and theory of music there (or composition and piano if you prefer to believe Wikipedia). Amongst many other distinctions he was a notable teacher and the list of his sometime pupils includes the names of Engelbert Humperdinck, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Ludwig Thuille, Henry Huss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the American composers George Chadwick and Horatio Parker. Richard Strauss probably also came under his influence. As a composer Rheinberger was remarkably prolific, producing some two hundred works – including two operas, a large amount of choral music, two symphonies, four concertos, twenty sonatas for organ and a sizeable body of chamber music. A look at his discography suggests that, apart from the organ music, most of these works remain unexplored for some reason. Warning bells begin to sound…..

The present disc is marketed as (the) “complete violin sonatas” although there are, in fact, only two of them – both in three movements. The brief booklet notes (by the pianist) provide a master class in giving little information about the music beyond what is obvious, overstating comparison with the music of great composers and suggesting qualities of originality and individuality which, I’m afraid, are not really there.

The first sonata begins with an Allegro con fuoco movement that sets out with a bare statement in unison, vaguely recalling one or two of the earlier Mozart violin sonatas. However, we are soon into “a dialogue with a tumultuous exchange of thematic material rich in chiaroscuro”. Here there are shades of the earlier Grieg violin sonatas but these are fleeting. As with so many such recordings of obscure music, we are reliant on the efforts of unknown musicians and – for the prospective audience – it is a matter of luck whether their techniques are sufficiently good to enable the merits of the music to be properly judged independently of the performances. Here, I’m afraid, we are rather out of luck. Performances are certainly enthusiastic but the pianist’s contribution is just a little stolid and lacking in sparkle – pursuing the “con fuoco” element of the movement over-emphatically. Worse, and sadly for the whole enterprise, the violinist’s technique has an unfortunate edge which sours his tone and his intonation also leaves a little to be desired. The recording is clear but rather close and this may be responsible for making the piano (about which no information is provided in the notes) sound rather as though its origins may be contemporaneous with those of the music.

The second movement (Adagio expressivo) starts with a simple melody that I feel should be played more wistfully than it is here. There is a rather uninspiring second subject – which the pianist/note-writer seems to think is some kind of homage to Brahms, although I can hear nothing to justify such a comparison. The finale, marked “alla Tarantella – Vivace”, possibly does have something of the flavour to be found in one or two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and this is modestly attractive.

The first movement (Allegro non troppo) of the second sonata has a more promising opening, with piano accompaniment of the kind to be found in some of the sonatas of Saint-Saëns, but it soon subsides into largely unmemorable rhetoric and overstays any welcome it might otherwise have had. The Andante molto middle movement gives the melody to the violin, with a relatively simple piano part. The last movement (also an Allegro non troppo) starts in unison then, in a series of slightly unlikely modulations, buries itself in note-spinning. Whilst all the notes seem to be there the lack of subtlety on offer here from both musicians suggests the performances of good amateurs, although the copious artist biographies indicate otherwise.

To pad out this meagre fare to the poor-value total of just over 45 minutes we are given transcriptions of three of the composer’s short songs. There are some moments of pleasant filigree accompaniment in the third of the Op. 4 songs and the Op.41 song begins well, with a likeable moto perpetuo accompaniment, but these transcriptions mostly serve to indicate that Rheinberger’s style did not really evolve from his Op.4 to his Op.104. Amazingly, and possibly in an effort to fill some space, the booklet provides full texts of all three songs.

As I have said before, I hate to slate the efforts of musicians who have made significant efforts to unearth and record obscure music but music of the third rank (which this very much is) usually requires masterly performances if it is to be made listenable. Unlike the piano concerto referred to above, the works on offer here do not receive such performances but I doubt they would sustain my interest much anyway. In the end this disc’s short measure to be a virtue

Bob Stevenson
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe


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