THE CHAMBER MUSIC OF MAX REGER
Max Reger lived in times of change. His music represents both a late flowering of German Romanticism and a foretaste of the Modernism to come. His chamber works demonstrate the best of both worlds, combining expressivity with innovation. A range of fine recordings has appeared in recent years, allowing adventurous listeners the chance to explore the work of one of chamber music’s truly distinctive voices.
Reger’s composing career was short but fantastically prolific. He produced substantial contributions to almost every major genre, combining a deep knowledge of their histories with a continual desire to innovate and reinvent. In the UK, he is best known for his orchestral variations and his bravura organ showpieces. These are fine works, but the British are often suspicious of their tendencies toward a number of distinctively Germanic faults: too dense, too contrapuntal, too intellectual and, more often than not, too long. That last complaint may have some substance, but the other reservations seem more a product of the limited repertoire on which Reger’s UK reputation rests.
But his chamber music escapes the worst of these excesses. Indeed, in many cases it turns them into positive virtues: counterpoint (of which he was undoubtedly a master) is clearly expressed in small ensembles, and his approach to chamber genres is based on a fidelity to classical forms that impose structure onto his otherwise fluid melodic style. Many of his chamber works are very long, but the examples of Schubert and Brahms (a defining influence) demonstrate that this need not be a problem in imaginatively, yet rigorously constructed music.
Max Reger was born in 1873 near Bayreuth in northern Bavaria and died at the age of 43 in 1916. In his short life he wrote an extraordinary quantity of music (works published in his lifetime run to 147 opus numbers), toured as a conductor and pianist, and held prestigious teaching appointments in Munich and Leipzig. He wrote in almost every major genre, with the organ dominating his early career and the orchestra the major preoccupation of his later life. But chamber music remained a constant throughout. Reger’s musical education, under the influential historian and theorist Hugo Riemann, emphasised the central role of classical chamber music genres to German music, and in particular the revitalising effect of Brahms on this tradition. In later life, Reger aspired (without complete success) to greatness as an orchestral composer, but never abandoned chamber music, which he produced at a constant rate, right up until his final completed work, the Clarinet Quintet Op.146.
Recent years have seen a rise in interest in Reger’s chamber music by record companies, with releases by MDG, CPO, BIS and, most recently, Naxos. This repertoire has until recently been poorly represented on CD, making the best of these recordings especially valuable. A twenty-three volume complete edition is available in Germany from Da Camera Magna, a BMG budget label. These recordings were made in Heidelberg in 1972 and, sadly, have little to commend them. The performances are patchy at best (string intonation is a persistent problem), and the recordings lack warmth. The digital transfers attempt to return roundness to the tone by indiscriminately removing higher frequency bands, with predictably ‘underwater’ results. This is all a great shame, as the recordings give a tantalising (if slightly obscured) overview of a fascinating career in chamber music.
The portly shadow of Brahms hangs over much of this repertoire. Reger thought of himself as heir apparent to a Germanic heritage of chamber music with Brahms as his immediate predecessor. This is clear from the genres of his chamber works: sonatas for violin, cello and clarinet, piano quintets, a clarinet quintet and (most significantly) a string sextet. But as an adult, Reger came to see the influence of Brahms as a burden as he sought a distinctive composing voice. This led him to disown his youthful compositions Opp. 1-19. Some of his early chamber works bear out his negative opinion: the first violin and cello sonatas (Opp. 1 and 5) sound like inferior copies of Brahms without any particularly interesting new or distinctive dimensions. The First Piano Trio (Op.2), by contrast, is a significant contribution to the repertoire, and Reger’s later rejection of it seems overly self-critical. But it shows his determination to move away from Brahms, a motivation that is most apparent in the chromaticism and variegated phrase structuring of his later works. Tonality is never entirely rejected, and each of his chamber works indicates a key signature in its title. But in his mature works these often serve merely as points of departure and arrival, with the intervening music moving freely between distant keys and chord patterns. Melody and counterpoint stand in for tonal relationships as the structuring and motivating forces, with the themes as the points of structural reference and their contrapuntal elaboration the most common means of development.
The two Piano Trios Opp.2 and 102 provide some the finest examples of Reger’s early and mature styles. Op.2 is scored for the unusual combination of violin, viola and piano. The influence of Brahms is apparent throughout in the melodic and harmonic identity; robust, strident themes accompanied by a wide range of late Romantic piano textures. But already in this early work (written in his eighteenth year), Reger was moving away from Brahms’ clear structural delineation. The themes of the first movement seem to expand and flow seamlessly into transitions. The finale is a theme and variations – a form with strong links to Brahms – but Reger affords himself considerable freedom of melody and form to create a series of contrasting lyrical episodes; a diverse yet coherent movement that foreshadows his later innovations in variation form.
The harmonic and structural developments foreshadowed in the earlier Piano Trio appear fully developed as the basis of the second, Op.102. The work opens with a provocatively chromatic four note motif – D, F, D sharp, E, which becomes the thematic basis of the first movement. The motif demonstrates the work’s ambivalent relationship with tonality, not a struggle but rather a wilful indifference, with the music drifting between distant keys through innovative and elegant modulations. This becomes most evident in the largo, a slow movement of Brucknerian scope and breadth, sustained throughout by Reger’s ability to spin long melodic lines over tonally ambiguous chord patterns. The two Piano Trios add up to an ideal CD pairing, and are available as part of the MDG Reger Chamber Music series performed by Trio Parnassus. Reger’s chamber music makes few concessions to its performers (one reason, perhaps, for its neglect in the concert hall) and it requires skilled players to bring out its Romantic sensibilities without being daunted by the technical challenges. This MDG series captures performances that more than meet these demands, and in a natural, warm acoustic that allows both intimacy and presence.
The string quartet made regular appearances throughout Reger’s chamber music career. His approach to the genre was almost reverential, and each is a serious work requiring an investment of time and concentration on the part of the listener. But the rewards are well worth the effort. The quartets strive for, and regularly achieve, a balance between expansive scale and classical proportioning. So opening movements often use strict sonata form as the basis for coherent (if not quite concise) thematic argument. Scherzos (such as the Vivace second movement of the Quartet in F sharp minor Op.121) temper these extended works with a dose of levity. The slow movements tend to return the music to a Brucknerian gravity and depth of expression. Many of the slow movements would seem expansive even to Bruckner, the Andante sostenuto movement of the Op.74 quartet runs to over eighteen minutes. But listeners with a Teutonic attention span will be richly rewarded; at their best they maintain intense emotional intensity throughout, with the extended and interconnected phrase structures leading the ear across their considerable timespans. Reger often uses the finales of his quartets as opportunities to indulge his taste for polyphony. The most impressive example is the finale of the Eb major Quartet Op.109, a movement that retains a sense lightness and grace, despite its being rigorously structured as a double fugue. Like the piano trios, the string quartets are well served by the MDG Reger Chamber Music Series, with the Mannheim Quartet giving committed, authoritative performances. A close second choice would be the Berner Quartet recordings available from CPO in a more economical budget price box set (the MDG discs are currently only available separately).
Emphasising Reger’s contrapuntal ingenuity and harmonic innovations runs the risk of merely reinforcing the stereotypes that are often held against his music. Reger himself was only too aware of this, and in his final years turned to a simpler compositional style. His Clarinet Quintet Op.146 and his Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola Op.141a, both composed in the year before his death, demonstrate this newfound directness. The music treads a fine line between the austere and the sentimental and gives an idea of the direction Reger may have taken had he lived into the more determinedly post-Romantic interwar years. The Clarinet Quintet has proved a popular choice with record labels, a melodious vehicle for their virtuoso clarinet signings. It provides an obvious coupling with the Brahms Quintet for Pierre Woudenberg with the Schoenberg Quartet on the Koch-Schwann label, but suffers by comparison with that undisputed masterpiece of the genre. The coupling with the Hindemith Clarinet Quintet by the Valerius Ensemble on Brilliant Classics is more equitable, exploring diverging yet complimentary musical paths.
Sonatas, both accompanied and solo, provide another valuable platform for Reger’s lyrical melodic style. These works span his career, with substantial contributions to the violin and cello repertoires as well as three sonatas for clarinet. The sonatas regularly indulge Reger’s taste for full textures and complex accompaniment figurations. For Reger’s detractors, these are his greatest failings; dense, unrelenting textures combined with excessive duration. But in the best of these works a balance is achieved, with emotional gravity set against a range of lighter figurations and textures.
The Violin Sonata in C minor Op.139 is one of Reger’s finest works in the genre. It was completed in 1915 and met with immediate popularity. Reger himself performed the work many times as accompanist to the great Adolf Busch. The first movement is marked con passione and is as emotive and dramatic as any he wrote. Not unrelenting though, but rather continuously inventive in its interplay of raw passions. The following three movements move to a tone of more controlled intensity. The short largo relies on Reger’s trademark extended phrase structures, but here tailored to the reduced scale, with their clear delineation articulating the movement’s shape and direction. The scherzo is delicate and urbane, alternating phrases of light violin figuration with filigree responses from the piano’s upper register. And the finale is a theme and variations, a Reger speciality. The variations move between distant keys, and the phrases expand and contract, but Reger retains a light touch throughout. Only the seventh variation (of nine) increases the drama, and then only briefly, and the work goes on to conclude in a serene, hushed coda. This is not especially virtuosic music, but nevertheless requires performers of skill and experience to control the melodic contour while retaining a sense of unpredictability. Both are admirably conveyed by Ulf Wallin and Roland Pöntinen on their CPO disc, volume two of a (hopefully) continuing edition of Reger’s music for violin and piano.
I hope that this brief survey has demonstrated the diversity of Reger’s chamber music catalogue and its potential to appeal to a wide range of listening tastes. But for those who remain sceptical of Reger’s Expressionistic indulgences, his small number of neo-Baroque chamber works offer a crisp and refreshing alternative version of his musical ideas. Reger was a passionate advocate of the music of J.S. Bach (even though this led to damaging suspicions of Protestantism within Munich’s ultra-Catholic cultural circles). His career as an organ composer was centred on Bach’s musical forms: chorale prelude, passacaglia, prelude and fugue etc. But unlike in these organ works, his application of Baroque genres to his later orchestral and chamber works also had stylistic implications. The result is an idiosyncratic post-Bach style, more attuned to the musical historicism of Brahms than to Stravinsky’s roughly contemporary neo-classicism.
The strategy had mixed results. His most significant orchestral work in this idiom is the Suite im alten Stil Op.93, which today sounds like a mongrel hybrid of Baroque ornamentation and Romantic orchestration. But in the chamber music context, the stylistic shift paid off handsomely. Reger’s Op. 131 consists of four chamber works: a set of six Preludes and Fugues for solo violin, three Canons and Fugues for violin duet, three suites for solo cello and three suites for solo viola. While each of these works is clearly distinct from Bach, the clarity of line and texture in each aspires throughout to the ideal of the German high Baroque. None of the works comes close to challenging Bach’s pre-eminence in these genres, of course, but they provide a refreshing modern engagement with the language and forms of the early eighteenth century, and without the self-conscious stylistic posturing of Stravinsky or his Parisian followers. The four works are all currently available on CD, but two recordings are worthy of special attention: the violin duos performed by Andreas Krecher and Claudia Hohorst (of the Mannheim Quartet) on MDG, and the Cello Suites by Alban Gerhardt on Hyperion. Gerhardt’s recordings of the cello suites and sonatas (the latter accompanied by the Reger specialist Marcus Becker) have recently received high praise in the press, with many reviewers expressing their surprise that performers have neglected these works for so long. The MDG disc couples the Canons and Fugues with the Piano Quartet Op.133. These are excellent examples of Reger’s Bachian counterpoint and of his chromatically inflected post-Brahms style respectively. The disc would provide an ideal starting point for anybody interested in exploring this repertoire further.
Reger’s chamber music offers rich rewards to adventurous listeners. Those already conversant with his orchestral music will recognise his harmonic adventurousness and mastery of variation form, here distilled into a smaller scale. Followers of the music of Schoenberg and Hindemith will hear important precedents, which both composers later acknowledged. Those attracted to the textural clarity of twentieth century neo-classicism are presented with a fascinatingly tangential alternative. And devotees Brahms (no doubt the largest potential audience) will find a distinctive reinterpretation of Brahms’ chamber style, not slavishly following the letter of his technique, but fully in accordance with its spirit. Reger is often seen as a composer in transition, a bridge between the Romantic and the Modern. The greatest of his chamber works display the finest qualities of both traditions, and the wealth of fine recordings to have appeared in recent years means that there has never been a better time to explore this music.
© Gavin Dixon 2008