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Max REGER (1875-1916)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach Op. 81 (1904)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of G.P. Telemann Op. 134 (1914)
Mark Latimer (piano)
Recorded at All Saintsí Church, Petersham, April 1994
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61718-2 [70.39]

This is a coupling that makes considerable sense and has in fact been pursued before, notably by Marc-André Hamelin on a 1999 Hyperion disc (CDA66996) though he added the Humoresken Op.20. In fact this Warner was recorded before the Hyperion, in 1994, and has lain in the vaults for a decade; Iím not aware of any previous release. Itís not been possible for me to make the obvious comparison with that Hyperion though I gravely doubt whether Latimer could really challenge Hamelin, given some limitations in performance exposed here.

It takes a rhetorician of considerable dynamism and skill to make something meaningful of the Bach variations and fugue. After the promising early material the density and unrelieved doggedness of much of the writing can communicate itself only too vividly. The monstrous Fugue, once considered a minefield, is less so now though itís still implacable and still takes plenty of playing. In many respects Latimer should better be judged by the companion Telemann variations, an altogether lighter and more fleet work. In the Bach he seems static. Comparison with Alexander Slobodyanik, the Russian pianist of romantic affiliations, shows a gulf between them. Latimer is very matter of fact and clipped and tends to elide dynamics. Phrase endings tend to come to a stop as well, sapping forward movement and tension whilst Slobodyanik rises to the crests of phrases and uses space to create a sense of direction and anticipation. The Telemann sounds somewhat more convincing and I enjoyed his way with the left hand voicings in variation II though surely the scherzando, variation III could be pointed more wittily and the trills elsewhere more even. But heís unable to convince me that XI, the quasi adagio, and part of the expressive heart of the variations, is anything other than dutiful, something that applies equally Iím afraid to XV and XVI, both slow variations.

The sound is good, the notes are by Latimer (best to ignore the braggadocio biography of the pianist) and the cover art is arresting. The music and performances, unfortunately, less so.

Jonathan Woolf


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