Johann Rufinatscha Orchestral Works Volume 1 [BBC Philharmonic/Noseda; Chandos]

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Overture: Die Braut von Messina
Symphony No.6 in D

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Recorded 8 & 9 November 2010 in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: March 2011
Duration: 71 minutes



Here is an intriguing musical resurrection: a Viennese-born composer who was a close contemporary of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann but longer-lived than any of them. In his very thorough booklet note, Stephen Johnson is admirably frank about his – indeed everyone’s – limited knowledge concerning Johann Rufinatscha (1812-1893).

The two works presented here are not definitely dated although The Bride of Messina overture is probably from 1850, but although it is known that a performance of Rufinatscha’s Sixth and last symphony was planned during the 1860s there is no stated year of composition and his Fifth had been completed some two decades earlier. Rufinatscha does not appear to have composed many later works and there is no evidence of his having created anything after 1880. Johnson has found no evidence among the scanty facts concerning the composer’s life that can account for this long, final silence.

A substantial and very dramatic overture opens the programme – this is not a prelude to an opera nor to a play (although with so little being known about the composer anything is possible); rather it is a fully developed concert work based on Schiller’s drama. The opening Adagio is grave and striking in a Beethovenian way. Increasing intensity is achieved by use of a series of getting-faster tempo markings. An interesting characteristic of the writing is the introduction of dramatic ideas using full orchestra but at a quiet dynamic level. This is particularly effective immediately after the introduction – amid the rich orchestral carpet trumpets cut in, quietly but with a splendidly threatening effect. The quiet ending is successful and the final pizzicatos bring Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture to mind.

At 57 minutes, in this performance, Rufinatscha’s Symphony No.6 is roughly the same length as Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony. It has an extensive 19-minute first movement with a very long introduction – again with several tempo indications. On arriving at the Allegro con fuoco there is a four-minute exposition which, following standard classical form, is repeated. The way in which Rufinatscha chooses to shape the work is important to its comprehension – and it certainly differs from Schubert’s final symphony because for all its length the Schubert is given a strictly classical contour whereas Rufinatscha’s linking passages are not confined merely to the traditional device of writing a few bars to ease from one key to another – instead Rufinatscha writes one or two completely new melodic ideas. This seems to anticipate Bruckner’s flexible approach to symphonic form. With no score available I put the wave-forms on to a screen and the symmetry of the construction at once became clear.

Next there comes a cheerful scherzo and a similar approach to form is apparent in that the music takes a diversion incorporating two new themes before the arrival of the recapitulation. There is however one small oddity – at the start of the movement a five-note phrase that introduces the main theme several times during the movement is prefaced by just its last two notes yet these notes are not to be heard on the repeat of the scherzo after the trio – an inconsistency in music that elsewhere is notable for its symmetry. The eloquently melodic slow movement provides a restful interval; there is minor-keyed thoughtfulness in this music but there is frequently a comforting blossoming into the major. Nevertheless, with the opening movement and scherzo together totalling 34 minutes it would have been more comfortable to place the slow movement between them. The finale starts in triumphant mood with one of Rufinatscha’s trademarks, a flourish on timpani. Mostly the pace is middling – an Allegro moderato sandwiches an Allegro before moving on to a lively coda. The overall effect of the steady progress of several reassuring tunes gives an impression of warmth not dissimilar to that felt when listening to an expansive work by Elgar.

I have often been aware of the exceptionally realistic sound given to the BBC Philharmonic by engineer Stephen Rinker. One particular feature is the truthful presentation of timpani. Altogether this is an admirably detailed recording, so many inner melodic lines support Rufinatscha’s main themes that clarity is vital – and clear detail is always a feature of Gianandrea Noseda’s approach to symphonic music. Rufinatscha is a composer unfamiliar to most music-lovers and I am delighted that Chandos plans to release more of his music. On the evidence of the present examples Rufinatscha seems not so much the heir of Schubert, rather I find the impression given by the overture and the symphony is of the type of music that Robert Schumann might have composed had he chosen to orchestrate in a different manner.

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