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MAX REGER (1873-1916) The complete string quartets   Berner String Quartet   rec 1992-94 co-production with Swiss Radio - Schweizer Radio DRS 3CDs nas CPO 999 069-2

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CD1 73.32
String Quartet in D minor (1888-89)
String Quartet Op 54 No. 1 in G minor
String Quartet Op 54 No. 2 in A major

CD2 53.15
String Quartet Op. 74 in D minor

CD3 74.17
String Quartet Op 109 in E flat major
String Quartet Op 121 in F sharp minor

CPO have done everyone a great service by making available these Swiss radio broadcast performances. The set has had hardly any critical attention and, as an intégrale, no competition. The closest we come to competition is the much more general and excellent MD&G's five CD survey (Mannheimer Quartet and Claudius Tanski) of the chamber music. MD&G's cycle seems to have escaped review as well. The critics and magazines just don't like Reger and as for Reger and chamber music ….! This is a terrible pity as hearing the present set manifestly demonstrates.

The first disc gives three works of most agreeable brevity (three quartets on a 73 minute disc). The Quartet in D minor (1888/89) has Brahmsian sturdiness and firm resolve in its favour. It is an early unopussed work and one's attention is not held or only focused for short episodes. The Schubertian adagio (Reger is good at these movements) comes second in this three movement work. Although the work falls into the category of juvenilia it is good to have it available as a reflection of Reger's early untutored style.

The Quartet Op. 54 No. 1 in G minor (1900) is a work of maturity: bustling elaboration of lines, driving force, a hiccuping bucolic air in the second movement, buzzingly dreamy in the largo mesto (the best movement) and ending, unusually for Reger, in a prestissimo assai which is fugal in character. The Quartet Op. 54 No. 2 in A major (1910) is, at just over 20 mins, rather short for a Reger quartet. It is the most compact of the six. The approach is restless with much chopping and changing of theme and pace. Both Op. 54 pieces are hard going though in no way atonal. Perhaps one can understand the exasperation of some composers of the time who turned their back on tonality and resorted to the 'new way' - to Schoenberg. No. 2 is memorably taken up with the hurly-burly of some dangerous street scene in which death flits among the crowd: a work of character but ultimately draining.

The String Quartet Op. 74 in D minor (1903) is an epic work spanning 53:15. The high string lines are piled deep and thick - interweaving in increasing polyphonic complexity. When Reger gets tired there is a pause but often as not in the big (20 min) first movement it is followed by another rush into a somersaulting and cartwheeling tapestry of rich density. The clouds occasionally part for some lovely moments worthy of the finest e.g. the sea lullaby at 4:03. Typically the Vivace second movement is, in timing and spirit, an exact counterpart for the second movements of Opp 109 and 121. The Third movement is a calm andante sostenuto con variazioni. The final allegro con spirito e vivace is romantic and complex at the same time. As Susann Popp's supportive and detailed notes point out, this pushes tonal music into one of its furthest and most remote reaches. Concision was not a strong suit of Reger. What this work does teach you (and I needed to be taught) is that Reger is a master of fantasy. The young players present the work to rather intense advantage and are intimately recorded - capturing the creaking of the chairs and the breathing of players in moments of high drama.

The Fourth Quartet Op. 109 (35.44) is a strange reversal of the situation with Havergal Brian (of whom it was said that the lack of performances of his work effectively consolidated in him a tendency to awkward construction and organisation). The mid-1890s concert in which Reger partnered the Bohemian String Quartet in Brahms' Piano Quintet may well have encouraged Reger into complexity. The Bohemians set new technical and artistic standards in their playing. Reger must have revelled in their excellence and wrote music to match and even test the players' high achievement. The complexity is well-known and terribly clichéed now but what this performance by the Berne Quartet also brings out, whenever the opportunity offers, is Reger's access to lyricism and mood-setting. Listen to the At a bierside lament of the first movement at 09:30. The quasi presto would go well by itself on Classic fM such is its perfect flighty brevity (4.33) and owl-wing quality. The warm and glowing Larghetto, not at all academic, has Dvorak's set to the jaw - the smile drifts indulgently from regret to sweetly elaborate song (3:33). The finale is fugally pointed; a dainty bobbing dance.

The Op. 121 Quartet (38.02) (1911) is dedicated to the Bohemians and was premiered by them in Dresden on 11 October 1911. While never anything other than lyrical and tonal this work is characterised by complexity of lines and yet more fugal chase. His adagio third movements are often touchingly done with a nod in the direction of Dvorak and so it proves here with long lines holding time in charmed suspense. In both the Op. 109 and the 121 these slow movements are preceded by a very brief and winged Presto/Vivace. The finale ushers itself in with the elements of fugal writing but its horizons soon broaden to take in a mixture of moods including the macabre moth-flight of the 109 presto, becalmed waters (8:52) the antique (almost neo-classical at 7:03) and the vigorous. Reger's ideas are good but there were moments in this quartet where I momentarily wondered if they could have been presented more succinctly.

If this music is unfamiliar to you and you would like to explore the place to start is with the Op. 109 Quartet. Its manner is among the most relaxed and its style amongst the least curlicued. After these works do try the Zemlinsky quartets and Franz Schmidt's pair of quartets. Also rewarding in this and any company do not forget John Foulds' Quartetto Intimo and Bax's String Quartet No. 3 (the latter to be recorded by Naxos - a CD premiere - it had previously appeared on a 1980 Gaudeamus LP). Both these British works are of the 1930s but are comparable in scale and ambition to the Regers.

The Berne Quartet (not forgetting Bela Szedlak in the prentice work), CPO and Schweizer Radio DRS are owed our thanks and admiration. This is a most rewarding project. It is difficult to imagine it being better done.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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