Josef Rheinberger, roughly contemporary with Brahms, is known mostly for his organ music, which presents a rather forbidding facade to non-organists. In a time when music had begun to be obsessed with the march of its own history, and the Brahmsians and the perfect Wagnerites were contending over the cadence, a composer like Rheinberger soon fell by the wayside. He was, at least in terms of tonality, a conservative, and his career was largely unconnected with the emerging musical institutions of the late nineteenth century; he was, in fact, one of the last beneficiaries of the system of noble patronage, serving as court composer to Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria. Yet "conservative" is not quite the right word for the a cappella sacred works heard on this lovely release. The mood of the music is bright, and Rheinberger avails himself of chromatic harmony even less here than in his organ music. However, these compact pieces have organic shapes, not the deadweights of traditional forms. Rheinberger's formal freedom is most noticeable in the Mass in E flat major, Op. 109, an intimate work that seems to express the text of the mass almost conversationally, with a straightforward quality that seems not reverential but confidently radiant. Really, as annotator Kathryn Parke noted, Rheinberger was a pursuer of beauty, and that quest marked him as a composer of his time. The performances by the Phoenix Bach Choir and Kansas City Chorale (separate organizations, but often combined as they are here for double-choir music) are superb, with a warmth that contrasts favorably with another recording by the Gonville and Caius College Chapel Choir (which does, however, include organ music and organ-accompanied choral pieces). Conductor Charles Bruffy performed with Robert Shaw and has inherited his tendencies toward seamless blends and a warm, rounded tone. These singers of middle America never smudge the more densely packed lines of the eight-voice Oster-Hymne, Op. 134 (Easter Hymn) or the Vier Sechstimmige Motetten, Op. 133 (Four Six-Voiced Motets), and the Chandos engineers are up to the task of clarifying dense a cappella textures as well; producer Blanton Alspaugh, or whoever chose Arizona's Camelback Bible Church as a recording venue, deserves special praise. A superb choral release worth consideration even at a punishing list price.
Rheinberger: Sacred Choral Works Review
by James Manheim