Reviews

GHCD 2400/01 – Max Reger – Recordings 1936-1943

Staatskapelle Berlin, Fritz Lehmann (conductor), Berliner Philharmoniker, Eugen Jochum (conductor), Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, Eduard van Beinum (conductor), Anni Frind (soprano), Orchestra, Bruno Seidler-Winkler (conductor), Elisabeth Schumann (soprano), Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, Eduard van Beinum (conductor), Städtisches Orchester Berlin, Robert Heger (conductor)

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American Record Guide – July/August 2014

Samuel Johnson once opined that if a writer’s reputation survived a first century it was likely to survive permanently. If the same logic applies to composers, Max Reger, who died at the age of 43 in 1916, looks to be in trouble. His reputation did indeed extend well beyond his lifetime: the 1952 Encyclopedia of Recorded Music devotes a very respectable five columns to Reger’s works in a wide variety of genres. By the time the postwar predilection for modernist composers did him in, his works had been well documented in the 78-rpm era.
This anthology of orchestral pieces suggests why Reger’s music continued to be performed into the 1940s, at least in Nazi Germany: these are accessible, well-crafted works expressive of the state of cosmopolitan taste at the opening of the 20th Century. It would be difficult to identify Reger in a drop-the-needle exercise: his compositions variously resemble Strauss, Elgar, Franck, and sometimes even Debussy. The prolific Reger had an ear for contemporary music and appropriated fearlessly.
In the classical vein there is the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, and in the romantic, the Romantic Suite with its more venturesome orchestration. Of particular interest now, as it doubtless was in 1942, is Eine Vaterländisch Ouvertüre, Opus 140 (!) a patriotic reworking of the national anthem composed during the First World War. There are also two songs with orchestral accompaniment performed by Elisabeth Schumann.
The production is first-rate, the sound excellent for its time, and the performances of the same middling caliber as the compositions. Record collectors in search of novelties will find them abundantly in this anthology of music which if seldom inspiring is seldom dull.
RADCLIFFE

International Record Review – July/August 2013

It would be foolish to deny that in many ways this is a specialist issue, but in terms of quality of performances and convenience of packaging, it is one whose musical value overrides any shortcomings in the necessarily historic nature of the Sound from these largely wartime broadcasts.
Almost 100 years after Max Reger’s alcohol-induced death (he drank nine bottles of wine himself at dinner the night before he was found), his music has only within the last 15-20 years begun to be appreciated as it should. His artistry bordered on genius, but it is not my intention to begin this review by making claims that are not universally shared: the quality of the music is, as always, the final arbiter, and having seen how long it took for the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler to reach a wide public I console myself with the thought that musical truth ultimately will out. Such rehabilitation will be aided by the performances on these CDs.
The circumstances of their recording in part explains one aspect of Reger’s music being sidelined and, as one of the pieces – Reger’s final orchestral work, Eine vaterländische Ouvertüre – carries with it implications of German nationalism (no more than Elgar’s `war’ music did for the ‘other side’ during the First World War), the inherent qualities of the piece have remained unknown. Certainly, it is on a par with Brahms’s Triumphlied – the big choral work he wrote to commemorate the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 – but Reger’s contrapuntal mastery in the final pages is something to wonder at: Johann Sebastian himself would have had his work cut out to surpass it. This is the first appearance of the music on disc, Robert Heger’s account being very well proportioned and paced, although the recording quality of this essentially ‘occasional’ hefty score is little more than tolerable.
Once one can discard extra-musical associations from Reger’s work, the extent of his achievement becomes clear. Of his compositions, well in excess of 200 (147 opus numbers, many containing more than one work), there are little more than a dozen for orchestra, of which six are contained on these discs. The most immediately attractive of them has to be the Variations and Fugue on a theme of Mozart, recorded here in 1943 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eduard van Beinum. This is a truly lovely performance of a work that is in the direct line of Brahms’s ‘Haydn’ Variations (which appears to have disappeared off most conductors’ radars in recent years) and although the 70-year-old Polydor recording has been superseded by later versions, none has quite the sense of beauty and character which informs this entrancing account – so musical, so utterly sympathetic.
Reger did not compose any symphonies, but the 50-minute Sinfonietta and (as here) his 40-minute four-movement Serenade in G are symphonies in all but name. Eugen Jochum’s account of the Serenade with the Berlin Philharmonie is extraordinarily perceptive and refined. Specialist collectors may know this performance from its issue in the USA on a very early mono Urania LP, but this is its first appearance on CD. Peter Reynolds’s remastering from the LP source is very successful, as indeed is every one of his other transfers in this set.
Van Beinum also conducts Eine Ballett-Suite (recorded at the same sessions as the Mozart Variations) and this is also worth having (especially the wondrous performance of the ‘Valse d’amour’ – almost echt-Viennese, and not so far removed from Kurt Weill), although Reger’s orchestral mastery is occasionally shown to better effect in the much better sound of the Colin Davis version with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on Orfeo (itself 30 years old). The four songs with orchestra show Reger to have been a natural inheritor of Brahms, rather than Hugo Wolf, in absolutely magical performances – Elisabeth Schumann in a rare example of her superlative artistry, as is Anni Frind.
Fritz Lehmann’s account of Eine romantische Suite is equally masterly and remarkably well played by an orchestra regarded as less than top-flight (certainly in wartime Belgium). The opening work on this set, the Lustspielouvertüre (containing a humorous – almost obligatory -fugal section) is well played by the Berlin Staatskapelle and well conducted by Lehmann, but the heavily textured score could do with more light and shade acoustically.
The booklet notes by Jürgen Schaarwächter, of the Max-Reger-Institut in Karlsruhe, are notably informative. A specialist issue, then, but an eminently worthwhile one.
Robert Matthew-Walker

Audiophile Audition – 27 May 2013

Guild resurrects rare wartime inscriptions of the music of Max Reger, inscribed by devoted disciples of his Romantic and contrapuntal art.
Assessments of the music of Max Reger (1873-1916) usually take into account his proficiency at the organ, and his fascination with fugal procedure derived from Bach. Reger considered himself the direct descendant of Brahms, a practitioner of “absolute” forms and Classical architecture fused to the harmonic syntax of Liszt, Wagner, and post-Romantic expressionism. Orchestral composition figured large in the Reger output, beginning at age fifteen, when he composed an Overture in B Minor, subsequently destroyed. In 1904 he produced his full-fledged orchestral work, Sinfonietta. But it was the Serenade in G , Op. 95 that “legitimized” Reger’s repute in orchestral writing; and conductor Eugen Jochum became a fervent champion of the score, and it his 8 July 1943 of the Serenade that graces this collection.
This set opens with the “Comedy” Overture, Op. 120 (1911), as led by Fritz Lehmann (1900-1956), otherwise known for his sympathy in the music of Bach. More contrapuntal than “comic,” the music (rec. 10 May 1941 for Odeon) evokes an aggressive but relatively uninspired melodic content. More immediately Romantic in nature, the Serenade in G under Eugen Jochum (for Telefunken) casts a warm glow in its expansive first movement Allegro molto, the bucolic elements of which could be attributed to Dvorak or Goldmark. Jochum (1902-1987) offers a studio performance that emphasizes his own penchant for muscular clarity of line, romantic warmth, and a girth that aligns Reger with the symphonic legacy of Brahms and Bruckner. The ensuing Vivace a Bulesca seems to mix Mendelssohn and Wagner more or less effectively. The lengthy Andante semplice can boast a genuine lyricism, its clean melodic lines not far from the charm we find in Humperdinck, although leaning to the Bruckner side of dark coloring. Though marked Allegro con spirito, the last movement exhibits moments of Brahmsian contrapuntal power, with much of that composer’s sense of orchestration, horns and strings in athletic cooperation in a mix that often alludes to the C Minor Symphony.
Lehmann appears once more, this time with the Belgian ensemble Groot Symfonieorkest van Zender Brussel (7-11 April 1942 for Odeon), then under Nazi occupation, in the Romantic Suite (1912), based on three pantheistic poems by Joseph von Eichendorff. Set as three movements – Notturno, Scherzo and Finale – the music conveys a luxurious, lush, and “learned” patina in a style easily reminiscent of Richard Strauss. The Ballett-Suite (1913) dates from Reger’s years in Meiningen, a venue Brahms valued, while the piece alludes to the Commedia dell’arte as its source of inspiration. The overt references to Colombine, Harlequin, and Pierrot and Pierette might acknowledge Reger’s debt to Schumann and his ability to give life to set figures from the theater. Eduard van Beinum (1901-1959), the co-conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (rec. 17-21 May 1943 for Polydor), also worked, reluctantly, under the period of Nazi occupation. His is the first “complete” recording of the Suite. In six movements, the Ballett-Suite recording omits the movement dedicated to Pantalon. The impressionistic fourth movement, Pierrot et Pierret, suggests Reger knew the music of Debussy or his close cousin, Roussel. In Valse d’amour Reger created a genuine Viennese charmer of a piece, an attractive waltz that can compete with Lehar or Glazunov. The last movement Finale: Presto offers a tarantella that fuses Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss. Did Reger admire the Strauss of Aus Italien? And why not?
Anni Frind (1900-1987), a celebrated Czech-born lyric soprano with a clear light voice, intones two Reger songs, Waldeinsamkeit and Des Kindes Gebet (rec. 1936 for Electrola) with conductor Bruno Seidler-Winkler. Both songs convey an especial magic, both of content and musical execution. This elegant singer eventually taught voice at Tulane University! The legendary Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952), noted interpreter of Richard Strauss, sings Maria Wiegenlied (rec. 1937 for Electrola), a melody that closely resembles one of the Brahms songs for contralto and viola, Op. 91. Zum Schlafen likewise captures an immaculate innocence. The conductor and orchestra receive no credits.
Eduard van Beinum leads Reger’s mostly consistently popular work, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart (for DGG, 17-21 May 1943), based on the theme from the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A, K. 331. Hermann Adendroth had recorded the work in occupied Paris, but he omitted the Fugue. The canny orchestration and the often delicate textures bespeak a master colorist at perfect ease in his compositional craft. Reger follows the Mozart original, for the most part, eight bars of statement followed by ten bars of reply, except in variations five and eight. For the Fugue, Reger exploits his affinity for the Brahms style, and so Beinum has the opportunity to realize Reger at maximum sonority while already forecasting the excellent Brahms interpreter he was to remain.
The sub-text of this war-time reissue has been the attempt by the National Socialist propaganda machine to utilize the music of Reger for its own perversely jingoistic ends. Apropos of this dubious honor, Reger’s Eine vaterlaendische Ouverture, “Patriotic” Overture, his last orchestral composition (1915), served that purpose, to a point. Conductor Robert Heger (1886-1978) made the only commercial recording (10 November 1942). The piece conforms to Reger’s penchant for polyphonic mastery: similar to his model in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Reger’s work incorporates the German National Anthem, the chorale Nun danket alle Gott, and the patriotic songs Die Wacht am Rhein and Ich hab mich ergeben. Rarely performed, you can best judge whether anything in this “occasional” piece warrants in-concert resurrection.
Gary Lemco