GHCD 2363 – Karl Böhm, Paul van Kempen conduct Music by Max Reger

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul van Kempen – conductor

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American Record Guide – May-June 2011

Reger’s Hiller Variations is based on a merry little tune by Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804), who among other accomplishments, was the founder and first conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. It is a light and insubstantial foundation to build a 43-minute set of variations on-plus a complex final fugue. That is nevertheless the task Max Reger undertook. To put it most kindly, it collapses under its own weight. Brahms’s Haydn Variations employs a more substantial musical foundation, and it is all over in less than 20 minutes. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variation takes 18 minutes. But this composition is too long by a factor of two. That said, Paul van Kempen, a Dutch conductor who spent WW II in Germany- which did not exactly to endear him to most of his compatriots-manages it as well as anyone else; and the Berlin Philharmonic is, well, the BPO. The monaural recording is all right, but nothing special. Karl Böhm was lucky to have been assigned the Mozart Variations, a shorter though still quite long 32-minute piece. It is also based on a much stronger foundation, from the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata 11 in A. Also, this performance is more recent than the Hiller, with a gain in clarity, dynamic range, and resolution of detail. Musically, it is splendid. It is also to be found in DG’s Originals series, paired with Böhm and the BPO in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The DG sound is superior to Guild’s in clarity of texture, dynamic range, and resolution.

CRQ Autumn 2010

Few reissues of vintage LPs on CD are more welcome than this CD. It contains two classic recordings of unusual repertoire, in superlative performances which up until now have fallen by the wayside (only the Mozart Variations have ever reappeared on CD, coupled with Böhm’s recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis). Both Paul van Kempen and Karl Böhm were conductors who flourished during the Third Reich, and this was because they firstly combined the ability to achieve performances that fused technical brilliance with a powerful sense of atmosphere (both hallmarks of master conductors), and secondly they were prepared to conform to Nazi cultural policies. Renderings of music by composers such as Reger and Pfitzner, who were German through and through naturally followed, and represented second nature to these musicians. So when in the 1950s both conductors came to record these two fine sets of variations for Deutsche Grammophon, they were preserving modes of performance in which they were arguably pre-eminent.
This music is extremely demanding in both technical execution and interpretation, yet the post-war Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrates a refinement and ease that frankly puts its present-day playing to shame. And to cap it all there is the extraordinary finesse of DG’s recordings, both made in the Jesus Christus Church in Berlin, with the earlier surprisingly being slightly the superior of the two. It is really doubtful that the music industry today could achieve performances of this
calibre, even if it wanted to, so if this release sparks your interest, buy it now while it is available – you will not be disappointed
David Patmore

MusicWeb International Thursday September 23 2010

As close to the composer’s musical world as you are likely to find

It must be the devil’s own work trying sell recordings of Reger’s music in the UK. Guild are to be congratulated then for the bravery of this enterprise, but also on the quality of their archive finds. The two recordings are taken from vinyl in the collection of the Max-Reger-Institut in Karlsruhe. Their absence from the digital transfer market is probably understandable, at least in the UK, given the continuing resistance here to his music. But they are well worth a listen. With both recordings you get the feeling that you are in the presence of the real thing. Both conductors were Reger devotees, and the Berlin Philharmonic has, or at least had in the 1950s, an unbroken tradition of performing the two works that stretched right back to the composer’s lifetime when their conductor Nikisch was one of his most ardent champions.

Of the many criticisms that are regularly levelled against Reger’s music, the most cutting and probably the most valid is that he struggled to write memorable tunes. This may explain his fondness for extended variation sets based on other people’s melodies. These two works are the best known examples, and they demonstrate the elevated status that the composer achieved for the otherwise lowly genre. Despite his lack of melodic invention, his ability to manipulate melody is unparalleled. In each work, the theme is always there in spirit, but only rarely appears on the surface. Reger’s orchestral textures are thick, but the combination of precisely articulated orchestral performance and the superior audio engineering ensures that very little is lost. He was a great contrapuntalist too, and you don’t have to wait for the final fugue of either work to hear some exceptionally intricate and elegant counterpoint.

This may be sacrilege, but to my ear van Kempen has the edge over Böhm. Both are able to maintain tight ensemble (even by BPO standards) without constraining the various solos and contrapuntal lines. But there is just a bit more energy to van Kempen’s Hiller Variations than there is to Böhm’s Mozart. Listen, for example to the third Variation of the Hiller. The energy and drive here are excellent. And then comparing the two final fugues, van Kempen is the conductor who best manages to shape that gradual increase in intensity as solo theme expands into full orchestral interplay.

But both are great performances. There is a tendency with more recent recordings of Reger’s orchestral music to lay off the drama, to make it all sound like civilised salon music. Not here though. True, Reger’s moments of dramatic intensity tend to be fleeting, but all are given their due by both conductors.

Audio-wise, you can’t expect miracles from recordings made in the mid-1950s, but German recordings from that period tend to have the edge over most others, and these aren’t bad at all. There is no peak distortion, the quiet passages (mostly woodwind solos) are clear enough to be enjoyable, and the range of dynamics in between is plenty wide enough for Reger’s purposes.

What you’ll find on this disc may not be sufficient to convert you to Reger’s cause, but if you already know these works, then these recordings offer a fascinating perspective. Historically, they are about half way between the composer’s own time and ours. Artistically, though, they are as close to the composer’s musical world as you are likely to find at this level of audio quality.
Gavin Dixon

Gramophone October 2010

Guild of masters and a master pianist

Stokowski revels in the light while Richter explores the dark

Speaking of the classics meeting jazz, both genres turn up, in varying degrees, on a fascinating Guild CD of wartime live recordings by the NBC Symphony under Leopold Stokowski. For my taste the Latin dance element is rather too prominent: aside from Fernández’s popular Batuque (thrillingly performed), there’s a trio of dances by Carmargo Guarnieri, four  of Darius Millhaud’s Saudades do Brasil and the “Guaracha” from Morton Gould’s catchy Latin-American Symphonette, all enjoyable but fairly similar to each other. More interesting bay far is Stoki’s luscious treatment of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols which won’t please readers who thought that American broadcast recordings of the Tallis Fantasia under Toscanini, Reiner and Monteux sported too much in the way of expressive portamento. I loved it myself, and the unexpectedly Scriabinesque American Rhapsody by Efrem Zimbalist, both works providing Stokowski with precisely the sort of colour-drenched material that most suited him. I also enjoyed Robert Kelly’s “Sunset Reflections” an a Coatesian “Promenade” from the Eastbourne Suite by the NBC lead viola player Carlton Cooley.

Also from Guild Comes what I can only describe as the “dream” historic Reger coupling, namely 1950s Deutsche Grammophon Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Hiller Variations under Paul van Kempen, which have been issued on CD before, certainly not internationally, and Karl Böhm’s Mozart Variations, which have at least twice. Both works are masterpieces, with van Kempen offering the more tapered, refined performance, fabulously well played, dramatic, too, whereas the more stately Böhm reading doesn’t quite displace “one he did earlier” in Dresden for German EMI.

Audiophile Audition June 18 2010

The recording of The Hiller Variations (July 1951) with Dutch conductor Paul van Kempen (1893-1955) endures as the music’s first commercial inscription. The music is based on “a merry tune” from Hiller’s 1771 singspiel The Garland of Harvest, and Reger’s treatment received its debut (15 October 1907) by its dedicatee, Fritz Steinbach, in Cologne. The scale of the variations proves quite vast, incorporating a large orchestra that occasionally–as in Variations IV and IX–bursts forth with a swaggering insouciance reminiscent of Richard Strauss in an expansive mood. Reger’s capacity for graceful melody reveals itself often, as in Variation V, a rather expansive arioso-serenade. The Minuetto variation appears relatively chaste and deliberately archaic, akin to the Richard Strauss Dance Suite After Couperin and the French Suite by Egk. Tympani, harp, strings, and athletic brass and winds color the Presto Variation VII. Chromatic coloration invests Variation VIII, Andante con moto, whose hazy gauze might suggest Delius. An imposing thickness of texture saturates Variation X, Allegro appassionato. The longest variation, XI, plays as a miniature, self-contained tone-poem in post-Impressionist syntax. Finally, Reger’s long acquisition of Bach counterpoint, cross-fertilized by the Brahms influence, produces the Fugue – a light spirited affair in frothy orchestral colors. The Breughel spirit reigns, a learned and densely-scored canon via village dance and its eventual apotheosis, somewhat reminiscent of Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper. The transfer to CD, eminently clean and brilliantly-articulated, owes its aurally raucous and illuminated impact to the remastering art of Peter Reynolds.
Reger composed his popular Mozart Variations and Fugue in 1914, basing them on the A Major K. 331 Piano Sonata upon which Mozart himself lavished variation talents. The rendition here (19-21 December 1956) has at the helm Karl Bohm (1894-1981), who first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1935. Bohm led the first inscription of the Mozart Variations in Dresden in 1937. The singular difference in the two scores lies in the lightness and transparency of orchestral texture in the Mozart. Reger suddenly adds muted and unmuted strings to the harp and woodwind mix, calling for various degrees of pianissimo and mezzo-forte. The Vivace Variation (IV) could have been lifted from the Brahms Haydn set, Op. 56a. Variation V bears a faint resemblance to the Strauss Till Eulenspiegel. The Sostenuto Variation (VI) dreams in a spirit close to Dvorak and bucolic Goldmark. The reverie in Variation VII comes close to Humperdinck’s golden vision in Hansel und Gretel. Variation VIII provides an extended moment of emotional repose and eerie transcendence before the polyphonically dapper grand Fugue, a pattern that marks the Hiller Variations as well. That these are the only Berlin Philharmonic inscriptions of these two Reger staples should warrant the historical collector’s immediate commitment.
Gary Lemco