Programme Notes

Rheinberger Mass in C, op.169

Josef Rheinberger is a curious composer. Not a huge amount is written about him, probably because he falls into another of those rather unfortunate “in the shadow of” categories; furthermore, it’s a rather large shadow created by the likes of Mendelssohn, Brahms and daresay Wagner too. It’s perhaps understandable that he often is very easily overlooked. 

Nonetheless, his output is rather large and certainly to the organist’s community, rather significant – twenty Sonatas, numerous short preludes and character pieces, two concerti and a host of works for organ and solo instrument. This is all in addition to both sacred and secular choral works, dramatic works, lieder, orchestral works that include two symphonies and rather a lot of chamber music too!

Opus 169 is a glorious work for soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra and, in fact, the only composition by the composer for this genre. The mass sits amongst 17 other masses for various forces, including the most popular and regularly performed Mass in E-flat for unaccompanied double choir. However, op.169 has definite significance in that it succeeds in restoring the demands of church music of the time – repertoire that was accessible and easily performable – in a most beautiful fashion.

It is very cleverly written, drawing upon a number of influences and styles of those composers heavily influential on Rheinberger’s life – the Classical vocal homophony of choir and orchestra, the Baroque contrapuntal writing and interplay between parts, the unexpected harmonic shifts and turns of an almost Wagnerian nature yet with highly expressive, lyrical and cantabile writing of a Brahmsian nature. It is a work that needs more outings and has numerous musical moments of varying style that truly take you on a journey whilst all the time adhering to the Mass ordinary, the text somehow continually grounding and cementing the work firmly within the realm of musical approachability.

Elgar Serenade for Strings, op.20

It is really rather telling that a piece composed relatively early in Elgar’s career and also before the heroic and masterful Enigma Variations has remained not just in the repertoire, but so firmly and frequently that it has become instantly recognisable from its opening six notes. 

Op.20 is a beautiful piece of writing, so short and compact yet with so much to say in so many ways. Elgar even said towards the end of his life that the Serenade was possibly one of his personal favourites and was in fact one of the final works he recorded before he died. 

An awkward melody on paper, perhaps, Elgar still manages to open the Serenade with an instantly singable and memorably sweeping melody that immediately sparks a feel of yearning yet optimism – low to high and then falling again, E minor to G major and back again, staccato viola introduction before super violin legato, pianissimo followed by hairpins – so very clever. 

A musical conversation ensues before we move to the second movement, famous for its aching beauty and overt Romanticism; frankly, the less said, the more listened to, the better. 

The final movement is perhaps the simplest, yet, again, the genius of the composer shines through in its ability to unite the earlier two movements in a lilting compound time signature. The movement is perhaps signified by its climactic gesture, a pair of forte, tutti chords before slipping smoothly into the coda and seeing us through to the end. But as you might expect, Elgar keeps well within the realms of the piece as a whole and doesn’t draw attention to this moment; the composition does the talking, so much so that it’s in fact very easy to miss and the piece is over before you know it. 

This might be said of the Serenade complete and is certainly part of its charm: an exquisite gem, written by a composer in total control of his compositional abilities. This work will always delight performer and listener alike for years to come.