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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Chorale Fantasia on "Alle Menschen mussen sterben" op. 52 no. 1 (1900) [17:13]; Six Trios op. 47 (1900) [17:43]; Introduction, Variations and Fugue in F sharp minor on an Original Theme op. 73 (1903) [37:13]
Martin Welzel (organ)
rec. Trier Cathedral, 8-9 July 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557338 [72:10]

For many years I slotted Max Reger into a rather unflattering personal pigeonhole labelled, to paraphrase the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, "mostly dull". He was not alone: joining him in this select group were such august names as Paul Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner. Whatever music I tried it seemed to be imbued alternately with a greyness or opacity, allied to an earnest worthiness, which made it distinctly unattractive. Moreover there was more than a whiff of academia in its bones.

Whether it’s the effect of anno domini or the development of a more discriminating palate, I’m not sure, but I find my attitude has changed. Not that I pretend to enjoy all Reger - or all Hindemith and Pfitzner for that matter - but to arbitrarily write these composers off I now see as a misjudgement.

True, those who enjoy immediately attractive melody in their organ music - as in Guilmant or Widor for instance - will often be disappointed in their German counterpart. Often that is ... but not always. Try almost any of the delightful trios on this disc and you could be agreeably surprised.

Nevertheless the main works on this disc illustrate the predominant feature of Reger’s organ composition; the skill in using and manipulating structures, often to massively impressive effect.

Reger was born into an average Bavarian family, in Brand to be precise, in 1873. His father, a schoolmaster and amateur musician, recognised Max’s talent and arranged for him to study with Adalbert Lindner the town organist at nearby Leiden.

Later Max moved to Sondershausen and Wiesbaden as assistant to a new teacher Hugo Reimann. Military service intervened and came as quite a shock to his system and so Reger went home to his parents to recuperate. His sojourn there became a spur to composition and he began work on a series of organ pieces designed to "test" the abilities of his friend Karl Straube. Indeed Straube, who later assumed the prestigious post at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, became a champion of this repertoire.

Reger’s rather "academic" reputation was in part fuelled by his adherence to "absolute music" and his rejection - largely - of programme music; in this he was nearer in general terms to Brahms than Liszt or Wagner. Also despite being a catholic, he made extensive use of Lutheran chorales in structurally complex fantasias, chorale preludes and other forms.

Hence it comes as no surprise that he should essay such a work as the Introduction and Fugue. At over 37 minutes it is among the longest and most impressive works played in what can be loosely described as the "regular repertory". Its greatness however is not just a function of its length but the masterly grasp and use of form. Listen carefully and even if you have no understanding of music, a distinct structure emerges, a "journey" is undertaken, resulting in an exultant and satisfying homecoming.

Dedicated to Karl Straube the piece was written in 1903 and like all good examples of variation form presents great contrasts of complexity and simplicity, married in this case to a stretching of tonality. The culminating fugue, where subject matter is introduced in the order of alto, soprano, tenor and bass strands, comes to a mighty conclusion over a dominant pedal point.

Until now my reference recording of this work has been that of Donald Joyce, on the William Hill, Norman and Beard organ at Norwich Cathedral (IMP Classics PCD 1096). On the whole Welzel is a match for Joyce. Both offer fine interpretations, with Welzel a fraction slower, albeit that the American has a technical advantage inasmuch as his disc has separate tracks for each variation – invaluable if you are coming fresh to the piece. Naxos simply separates the final fugue from the body of the variations. Couplings meanwhile vary and here Naxos are more generous; Joyce simply adds another Chorale Fantasia.

I confess to being unfamiliar with the Klais organ at Trier, but have to report that it appears more rounded, free of a certain hardness that I have experienced with this builder’s instruments elsewhere. Indeed I found the sound overall most satisfactory, balancing mystery with clarity, with just an occasional passage of smudging when a really active pedal line was underway. Although a specification of the organ is provided, sadly there is no detailed description.

Fortunately there are notes about Martin Welzel, who claims a distinguished line of influences, including Jean Guillou, Daniel Roth and Wolfgang Rubsam; the latter sometime participant and consultant to Naxos’s "Organ Encyclopedia" project – albeit that this styling appears to have been dropped from recent issues.

So if you’re in the market for something demanding but ultimately rewarding in organ repertoire this will be £6 or so well spent. In fact this is my first "dip" into Welzel’s cycle, and it’s my intention to sample the other volumes as soon as possible.

Ian Bailey

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