Saturday, March 15, 2008

That Gretchaninov Disc Wasn't a Fluke

Rheinberger: Sacred Choral Works
Kansas City Chorale / Phoenix Bach Choir; Charles Bruffy
Chandos Records, CHSA 5055
Four Motets Op. 133; Mass Op. 109; Three Sacred Songs Op. 69; Easter Hymn Op. 134


(I didn't really think it was, but here's the proof just the same.)

As a lover of organ music I'm a bit surprised that I've failed to latch onto the works of German (or Liechtensteinian) Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901). Falling between Felix Mendelssohn and Max Reger (he was a contemporary of Brahms)--all of whom I enjoy--one would think I'd eat up his output of some 20 Sonatas. But Rheinberger and me are apparently like Mozart and me: people far smarter and more informed than I have given their stamp of approval, but his music just begets no response whatsoever in me. In both these cases, I reserve the right for the long-planted seeds to suddenly bear fruit, but every time I check back there's just dirt (in the case of Mozart, the seeds have had 30 years to germinate and I'm pretty sure they're dead and they'll stay that way).

Well, that's organ music. But after my thrilling discovery of the Kansas City Chorale and Phoenix Bach Choir singing Gretchaninov, I was eager to give this group's next release a quick audition. And Rheinberger it is. Well--a big relief to his corpse, I'm sure--I like his choral music rather more than his organ music. Indeed, I would have pegged it as either Brahms or Mendelssohn if I hadn't read the label; it has Mendelssohn's lyricism. Gently contrapuntal and resolutely tonal and conservative as church music apparently should be, this is music that will surprise no one. But it's well-crafted and quietly engaging and makes for a disc I'm happy to add to my collection.

The ensemble and conductor Bruffy bring the same wondrous sensibilities and careful precision to this disc as to their previous. His tempi and phrasing and the balance of the ensemble are simply beyond reproach; inspired, even. I was tempted to conclude that Rheinberger's writing is not quite as engaging as Gretchaninov's to my ear, but it's growing on me after several hearings. Still, the Russian works seem more ambitious or momentous somehow -- transcendent, almost otherworldly, familiar yet different. Maybe it's just that Gretchaninov hails from a more isolated corner of human culture. There is something predictable about much of the Rheinberger (not to say mundane); it sounds a bit like a solidly competent composer using the standard tools available to him.

But for all that, this is still a virtuosic display of choral singing with moments of real depth and inspiration. Much of it is soaringly beautiful, and here's to hoping it continues to grow on me as it has. But for now it still gives me a warm glow of satisfaction rather than leaving my mouth open in astonishment. Call it fully five stars for execution and four for material. Well, that's still a pretty great accomplishment at that.

And who knows? Maybe this will be the eye-opener for Rheinberger's organ works for me.

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