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Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) was a versatile composer. Works included operas, symphonies, a piano concerto, sacred music and piano works, but his best compositions were his 20 organ sonatas. Like his contemporary Alexandre Guilmant, Rheinberger’s music has suffered in recent decades, due (I suspect) to the conservative harmonic language which derives from Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and not from progressive Germans like Liszt and Wagner. This must have been deliberate, because as répétiteur for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Rheinberger astonished colleagues by playing and transposing the score at sight. A gifted improviser, he counted among his pupils Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari and Wilhelm Furtwängler, as well as several Americans. His teaching involved traditional skills of harmony, counterpoint and form, which his organ sonatas exemplify. Originally envisaged as a set of 24 (in all keys), only 20 were completed. A gifted melodist, his command of formal structures in the 19th-century German manner was exemplary – a true successor to Mendelssohn.

As current organist of the Temple Church, Roger Sayer is an excellent person to extract the most from the Harrison & Harrison organ, first built for Glen Tanar in 1927. Thanks to George Thalben-Ball, the organ was installed in the Temple Church in 1953, with subsequent changes in 2013. As a vehicle for Rheinberger it is convincing, and Sayer is masterly in managing the myriad colours and dynamics demanded by the music. The Passacaglia (Sonata no.8) is a particular highlight, and the fugal finales (including a fugue on a complete chromatic scale) are always ingeniously wrought, often concluding with a partial recapitulation of the first movements, tightening the sonatas’ structures. Intermezzi, marches, andantes, variations, idylls, pastorals, ricercars, regional folk pieces, as well as preludes and fantasias, all contribute to the variety of forms included. Altogether, this recording should help to redress Rheinberger’s neglect.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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