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Four Hands of Fantastic: Reger & Schubert

Sometimes the happiest experiences are the ones least expected – and as that applies to life, so it does to concert-going. Wedged in between Ronald Brautigam’s recital and the premiere of a new production of Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” came one such happy surprise in form of a recital by the Piano Duo Tal & Groethuysen before a small but lucky crowd at the Herkulessaal in Munich.

Presented as part of “Konzerte in der Residenz”, this music-making example of German-Israeli friendship offered the whimsical Fugue in e-minor D952 by Franz Schubert and still made it sound like great music – or at any rate an integral part of a great evening of piano playing. The little, invariably charming Fugue has a Bach-like appeal and served as part bookend, part teaser to the imposing and Bach-sodden e-minor Organ Suite by Max Reger that occupied the entire second half of the program.

In order to keep the balance between the Reger suite and the first half of Schubert works intact, Yaara Tal suggested that their mélange of the Fugue, the Allegro in a-minor D947 (“Lebensstürme”), the Rondo in A-major D951, and the “Two characteristic marches” in C-major D886 be considered – and treated, applause-wise – as a whole.

That approach worked well enough and sandwiched the two spectacular works in the key of A between those lighter pieces. The Allegro, though it grabs you right off the bat, is not all “Sturm & Drang”, as the title might suggest. In parts it rather resembles the sweetly ethereal quality that also makes the f-minor Fantasy D940 so attractive. The Rondo, not as long as either the famous Fantasy or the Allegro, is no less an ingenious work. All three are among the absolutely finest compositions that Schubert wrote, even if nothing in the piano duo genre is generally thought to occupy the same lofty realms that works in “serious” forms, such as the symphony or string quartet or (solo) piano sonata, do.

But as if beautifully performed Schubertian gorgeousness wasn’t enough, the Reger – charmingly, effectively, and efficiently introduced by Andreas Groethuysen – was yet a more powerful experience. It may not have been played as well, technically, as the Schubert. But the depth and passion, the enthusiasm and the vigor with which Yaara Tal and her German bench-mate dug into this complex, roughly 40 minute long organ sonata, self-transcribed for Piano Four Hands by Reger, was nothing short of awesome.

The sonata is the fruit of his depressions, troubles, and thwarted ambitions – and also the answer to them. After transcribing many organ works of Bach, his musical God (to whose Manes this sonata is dedicated), he must have felt like it was time for a great organ work of his own. And from the first note on you can hear the “grand statement” or at least the forced and determined will toward that grand statement. The Intoduzione. Grave – Fuga. Allegro ma non tanto opens with its theme that itself sounds like several Bach fragments placed after one another. A more gentle second theme and counterpoint eventually gets thrown together with the first for a quixotic Fugue that then leads into the second movement Adagio which is made of three more or less recognizable Bach-chorales. Again you cannot shake the feeling that every bit of romantic suffering has been dumped into Bachian forms by the bucket load here – but if that should sound disrespectful at all, it’s not meant as an indictment at all. Quite the opposite: the work – and played as empathetically and handsomely as did Tal & Groethuysen – is pure, stern, serious, head-bopping and foot-tapping (preferably not during a live recital) fun.

A lovely scherzo-like Intermezzo provides the least heavy moment before Reger lunges himself into a Passacaglia of proportions second only to BWV 582 and just about as compelling, unstoppable, and inevitable as its great model, too. The encore was cut of a similar cloth: Brahms second of the “Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem selgen End” choral preludes op.122. It is conjecture, though rather plausible, that Brahms was inspired to this, his last work, by Reger having sent him the score of his sonata. Reger, too, used that chorale from BWV 727 in his organ work.

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