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How Much Reger do you Need? (How Much Reger can you Take?)

How much Max Reger (1873 – 1916) does one need? Enough to rid oneself of the stereotypes, not so much as to reinforce them. This catch-all box of re-released Reger by Brilliant does a very fine job of striking that balance.

About those stereotypes of Reger as a composer more appreciated than listened-to, a “master of thick textures, heavy counterpoint, and interminable fugues”… here is the only answer you need to pass Stereotyping Reger 101: “Too much counterpoint (=too conservative) for modernists, too much chromaticism and dissonance for Romantics.”

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M.Reger, Concertos, Suites, Variations, Sacred Songs, Chamber Music,

Sitting between two chairs, as his music did, his popularity plummeted among all but ardent organ lovers as a composer of densely chromatic, contrapuntal music; dour… a Brahms minus the melodies… and serious with a capital “S”. To musicians meanwhile Reger is widely known as the author of the pithiest response to a critic ever penned: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” The German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, with a wink and a poke, wrote in his lexicon that “Reger’s music, as opposed to that of Mahler or Berg, leaves listener’s who didn’t get much or any of it, with the distinct and unsettling feeling that they didn’t get it.”

It might be true – beyond the image (which seems much more pronounced than actual familiarity with his work) – that a little Reger goes a long way, which in turn might explain that there are not many box sets with Reger’s music. A complete chamber music set was brought from LPs unto 23 CDs and circulated in Germany for a while, but never stormed the charts. MDG abandoned a similar project, but did bundle all the organ works on 12 CDs with Rosalinde Haas; a set I remember sneaking concentric circles around when I was a student and had discovered it at the local Tower Records (RIP) – until I pounced on it when it had finally, disillusioned by lack of interest, emigrated into the bargain-bin. Markus Becker recorded the complete piano works for Thorofon; that might not have been the reason the outfit went under, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

Put Your Reger in a Box

Well, here is Brilliant Classics’ contribution to this perilous field of Reger box-sets… not quite a cube at 11 CDs in sleeves in a snug cardboard wallet, but sizeable and notable. The bulk is made up of the Berlin Classics box of the orchestral works, and this is good news, because it contains splendid music in excellent, sympathetic performances. It's been given positive-if-noncommittal reviews elsewhere (Rob Barnett, Jonathan Woolf), which will give you an idea of the music. The reviewers also throw around – as one is naturally prone to when describing Reger’s output – all the other composers’ names that his music could be said to evoke: Elgar (to English maybe), Sibelius (not all that much), Wagner (indeed), certainly Strauss, and definitely Brahms… I would add “Joseph Marx”, but if you know the latter’s music, you’re familiar enough with Reger not to need the crutch of imperfect analogy.

The performances are played by a veritable Who’s Who in GDR music-making, which makes sense since the recordings were produced for the state-controlled monopolistic music publisher. The Dresden orchestras, the RSO Berlin, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Leipzig (now the MDR SO) participate under the leadership of Heinz Bongartz (only the Böcklin-Suite op.128 sounds awfully tame in his hands), Heinz Rögner, Otmar Suitner, Franz Konwitschny, Günther Herbig, and guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt. They produce what Barnett rightly calls “heartfelt music-making across these warm-hearted and sometimes languorous works”… and if anything, I suspect he might underestimate just how good most of these performances really are. Apart from the obvious lack of competition, this is not a set of compromises, but a set of standard-setters… even if those are standards that might be surpassed in a few instances, depending on one’s taste and predilections.

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M.Reger, Orchestral Music,
Berlin Classics

The liner notes, retained and amended from the Berlin Classics release (unusual for Brilliant, they laudably include the texts and organ registrations), make a good case that all of Reger’s orchestral works are in some way the product of his fruitless aim at the grand symphony. Reger never found his way to the symphony, but he hit upon many a fine alternative and compromise along the way, with his neo-classical, luscious, usually lengthy but not always protracted works. Especially the Variation sets (Mozart, Hiller, Beethoven) are easy on the ears and make for a good introduction to orchestral Reger.

The Concertos

The Violin Concerto has had a few notable outings just recently – with Ulf Wallin and Ulf Schirmer (on cpo, in unbeatable sonics), with Benjamin Schmid and Hannu Lintu (on Ondine, with the best soloist), and with Tanja Becker-Bender and Lothar Zagrosek (on Hyperion's Romantic Violin Concerto series). Perhaps this signals a renaissance of the Reger Concerto and we’ll soon hear the hour-long concerto in concert halls around this world? (No we shan’t.) In any case, both new recordings are contestants for a hypothetical crown in the repertoire, but they would have to fight it out with Manfred Scherzer, Herbert Blomstedt, and the Dresden Staatskapelle (included on this set) who set a standard (especially in spiritedness and orchestral brawn) that isn’t easily surpassed. That said, I enjoy Wallin’s tone and smartly employed, liberal vibrato, and Schmid’s delicate and lyrical note enough to give either newcomer a slight edge.

Reger’s Piano Concerto is much more difficult than it sounds, which gives it a very ungrateful difficulty-to-bravura ratio: many finger-twisting hours of practice but little by way of applause-inducing razzle-dazzle piano-fireworks (no cadenzas, for starters). If there’s to be any revival of this work, it has yet to happen. Rudolf Serkin (Ormandy, CBS/Sony), close to Reger through his father-in-law Adolf Busch, used to be the only game in town. The few recordings since haven’t added greatly – Michael Korstick (U.Schirmer, Munich RO, cpo), Gerhard Oppitz (H.Stein, Bamberg Symphony, Koch), and Love Derwinger (L.Segerstam, Norrköping SO, BIS). The two German recordings are Reger-stereotype-reinforcing foursquare; the latter less than the former… Derwinger/Segerstam are supple and surprisingly sensuous but I wish the recorded sound was clearer; it’s too far the opposite of the harsh and direct aged sound of the Serkin recording. The most recent addition, Marc-André Hamelin (Ilan Volkov, Berlin RSO), makes the most of the work, with shades, fleet nuance, and even relative lightness.

Relative lightness is not organist and harpsichordist-cum-pianist Amadeus Webersinke’s strength, but Bach is – and he gets those aspects of the concerto very right that link up with the great master and Reger’s most notable composer-role model. But being a symphonic work, an anti-piano-concerto of sorts (perhaps the way Brahms’ Violin Concerto was considered to have been written against the violin), the orchestra has more to do than in the violin concerto… and Günther Herbig and the Dresden Philharmonic make very fine work of it. If it’s not very attractive a concerto on casual first hearing (there’s kinship to Busoni’s concerto, with a hint of Pfitzner), it yields more and more with each return… and if you happen to fall in love with it you can always add Hamelin/Volkov for a considerably different, alternative, better take.

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M.Reger, Early Organ Works,
Bernhard Buttmann

Bits & Pieces

So much for the orchestral music, which is well (though not exhaustively*) covered by this box. But the collection also says “Sacred Songs, Chamber Music”, which insinuates more than there is to it. It should really read: “And then assorted bits and pieces”. The chamber music included exhausts itself in one of the String Trios (A minor, op.77b, 1904, the all-strings sibling of the Serenade op.77a for flute, violin, and viola) and the veritable masterpiece that is the Clarinet Quintet op.146 (1915). They are both performed by the Valerius Ensemble (1997 recordings by Brilliant, formerly coupled with Hindemith). On paper they look like potential weak spots, but they’re performed very well indeed. André Kerver plays the clarinet with panache that makes you not miss the Quintet’s primary exponent, Karl Leister. (The latter is best heard in his first recording with the Drolc Quartet, which comes with the string quartets on a DG Trio.) The Quintet might be an ideal, if slightly misleading starting point for any Reger exploration… there’s no sense of overly dense Brahms or hyper-chromatic Bach here, but instead a gay air of Mozart that hardly sounds autumnal or like the swansong that, biographically speaking, this piece was.

Two further CDs are filled with the seven Chorale Fantasies (opp. 27, 30, 40, and 52, 1990 Dutch Fidelio recordings, previously re-issued on Brilliant), and finally the Three Motets op.110 (1912) and Eight Sacred Songs op.138 for small chorus (taken from another 70’s Edel recording). The op.52 Chorale Fantasies are reasonably common among organists’ repertoire; the others less so, and rarely found combined on two discs. Organ/Reger lovers might have their favorite instruments and interpreters for “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”… for everyone else this is likely new territory. I can’t claim to have strong feelings towards these recordings one way or the other, nor do I have many comparisons at hand. But where I do, I prefer Martin Welzel on Naxos because his instrument provides more individual colors – subdued though they are – than either of Wouter van den Broek’s organs, and the greater gravity and spatial separation of his (Welzel’s) playing. The Sacred songs and Motets show similarities to Zemlinsky, more so than Bruckner (as one might be tempted to expect) and are a moving way to cap this spotty, but very charming Reger survey.

For those who got a taste for more, the next Reger-stops should include the Piano Trios, the Six Pieces op.94, his Goldberg Variations touch-up (together with Rheinberger), and some of the choral works, specifically as assembled on the recent Ondine release “Vivit!”.

* Not included are the two symphonic movements in D-minor, the Lyrical Andante for string orchestra, the Two Romances for Violin and small Orchestra op.50, the Fatherland Overture, the Overture to a Comedy op.120, the Schubert transcription “An den Mond”, the G-major Serenade op.95, and the fragment of the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra op.147.