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Len Mullenger:

Variations and Fugue on a theme on a theme of Mozart Op 132
Variations and Fugue on a merry theme of Hiller Op 100.

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Franz-Paul Decker.
Naxos 8.553079 (DDD) (72 22.)

I have never understood the objections that people make about the music of Max Reger. He was a truly great composer but, perhaps, it takes professional musicians to fully realise that. He was a genius.

And yet people carp that there are too many notes in his music, that his chromaticism and constant modulations are wearisome ; that he is dull and Tuetonic and that his music is all the same.

What nonsense.

He was a brilliant academic and contrapuntalist as was J. S. Bach. "So , if we condemn Reger for these attributes, we condemn Bach!

That is madness.

Reger's has too many notes? Yes, and the same could be said for Bach. And so the prejudice is shown. Bach can do it and it's great. Reger does it and it's wrong.

That is musical hypocrisy!

Reger is dull and Tuetonic? Is Bach never dull or non-Teutonic? Surely it is how music is played that prevents it from being dull.

Too many modulations? Maybe, but aren't they clever? You read the standard harmony textbooks and see how Prout and others tell you how to change key in say seven steps taking two full bars to do it whereas Reger does in two steps and takes one beat of a bar. That's far superior.

Reger was not the nicest of men and was a bit of a sot and glutton which explains why he died so young! But there are many composers who were equally as bad, if not worse who had seedy lifestyles and died young but this is ignored. Schubert died of syphillis but people say that does not matter... poor man!. Ain't it a shame? Reger died of overeating and drinking.., people exclaim," How shocking.... the man must have been awful." But what about Schubert? And the reply comes back that he wrote lovely music and super songs. Jerome Kern wrote better songs than he did. But the argument continues. Reger is claimed to be a nasty piece of work and it is forgotten that Schubert was a rake, a frequenter of brothels and paid for services. The anger now comes to the fore. "Well," it is argued, ". all composers of Schubert's time were like this." And then they add that all men were like this in those days.


Wagner was a magnificent composer and yet he is castigated for his anti-semiticism. The truth is that he did not hate the Jews or the Arabs but disliked the composer Meyerbeer who was a Jew.

This myth causes people to devalue Wagner. The fact that Hitler liked his music causes many more to devalue Wagner. Chopin was probably more antisemitic than Wagner!

A particular British composer, who is positively revered, was a very nasty piece of work and yet this is conveniently overlooked and indeed played down to such an extent that his disgraceful behaviour is transformed into virtue!

The dishonest maligning of composers is a hobby for some people who, in turn, hate it when the real character of their own musical heroes is proved to be highly questionable.

A man's lifestyle is his business . As for composers we are to assess their music but, sadly, we have to know something of their lives for example, to see the background of the work. A case in point is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 2, which was given an awful performance at the opening night of this year's Proms by Kissin, could lose something of its effect if we did not know that the composer wrote it after a period of great depression and after being helped by Dr Nikolay DahI with hypnosis treatment. Played well and with the right tempi it is a glorious work.

Reger lived from 1873 to 1916. He was a very profilic composer and extremely versatile in every genre. He wrote six string quartets of which the String Quartet no. 5 in F sharp minor is the most perfect work in this medium. If anyone wants to compose a string quartet, this is an excellent model. He wrote a Piano Quintet, a Piano Quartet, two String Sextets, 7 Violin Sonatas and three each of clarinet and cello sonatas. His Clarinet Quintet is another masterpiece. His organ works are second only to Bach and include two sonatas and many other pieces. His songs are variable but his big choral works like the Requiem op148 are superb.

He wrote a very fine Piano Concerto, recorded by Serkin, and, in 1908, a truly remarkable Violin Concerto, a monumental work that ranks alongside those by Sibelius (1903) and Berg (1935) as the three greatest violin concertos of the 20th century. The Reger concerto was first recorded by Susanne Lautenbacher on a Pantheon disc which surprised me as she was always associated with early music and this concerto is really very difficult to play. The finale is very infectious and will dispel these absurd notions that Reger was dull.

But Reger is best known for his sets of variations and fugues on themes of Telemann Op 134 (piano), Bach Op 81 (piano), Beethoven (two pianos or orchestra), a merry theme by Hiller and by Mozart the last two of which are on this disc.

The Mozart Variations are based on the theme of the set of variations that Mozart wrote as the opening movement of his Piano Sonata in A, ........ the one with the famous Turkish rondo finale. This was a brave decision by Reger as Mozart wrote variations himself to make up that first movement.

Reger's engaging score was written in 1914 and he was anxious to make the music and the orchestration to be clear. He hated the idea of peculiarities in music. He did not feel that variations should drastically alter the character of the original as some composers' variations do. I won't mention names. What Reger does is to give them a romantic flavour constantly changing the key and slightly altering the rhythm. It is curious to note as I followed the score that he saves the exciting music invariably for the key of A minor. The eighth variation in E major makes way for the fugue.

And for the Reger-hater, Reger could write superb fugues. This one is no exception. It is engaging and exciting. Dull Reger? The fugue ends with the timpani providing the tonic pedal.

Dull and miserable Reger?

The next set of variations is on a merry theme by Hiller. Who is this chap Hiller?

I remember a wonderful letter in The Times a few years ago which read;


Who is Terry Wogan?

Indeed. Who is he?

Johann Adam Hiller was born in 1728 and died in 1804. He was a German composer and thought to be the founder of the Singspiel which was a term given to an opera with spoken parts. He wrote operas and church music. The merry theme is taken from the stage-work Der Aernotekranz.

There are eleven variations and a fugue in Reger's work. The fugue starts with strings in descending order as it does in the Mozart Variations. It is another emarkable contrapuntal work of tremendous skill.

And people object to Reger as a composer! Insane.

Having said all that, these performances are not the best. Some tempi are questionable and the orchestral colour is a little thin at times. The conductor makes annoying rallentandos at the end of some variations and sometimes his performances are dreamy rather than robust.

And so, is the alleged dullness of Reger's music due to perfomance like this which do not do justice to the music?

David Wright


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