Max REGER: String Quartet in E flat, Op.109; Clarinet Quintet
in A, Op.146
Karl Leister (clarinet) &
Vogler Quartett Berlin
NIMBUS NI 5644 [71'
through MusicWeb for £12.00 postage
Max Reger (1873-1916) continues to get a bad press in certain quarters.
Accusations of his music being turgid, dry, academic and boring only confirm
my feeling that many people do not know how to listen to music in absolute
terms. Yet the opening of the E flat Quartet (1909) could be by Brahms. Reger
saw himself as continuing a line which begun with Bach and included Beethoven
Reger's music is undeniably abstract in form and content - yet he has the
power to move the heart and the senses as both these masterly chamber pieces
prove. It's getting to the emotional core of Reger's music that seems to
be the problem for listeners.
Reger has Bach's mastery of counterpoint and an innate grasp of fugue and
variation technique (qualities inimitably displayed in the finales of the
Quartet and Quintet, respectively fugal and commentary). His string music
- such as this Quartet - is no more of a problem to listen to and comprehend
than the Late Quartets of Beethoven or the three of Brahms. Perhaps the
susceptible content of Reger's music - which is certainly there and takes
him closer to Schumann - is not as initially apparent as with the other
composers. Reger's use of chromaticism, and his denser textures, do perhaps
need more unravelling to get to the music's heart - but I suggest the effort
is well worth it. The Quartet's first movement contains some memorable ideas,
not least the beautiful subject that begins at 2'16" - soulful, exquisitely
melodic and quite personal. This movement ambiguously switches between
soul-searching and striving, a tension well conveyed by the Vogler Quartet.
If Brahms is suggested so too is Schoenberg. Anyone who loves Verklarte Nacht
(or any late 19th- and early 20th-century music that stretches tonality)
will respond favourably to this opening movement. The following Scherzo finds
the four musicians exchanging scale passages and scurrying melodic fragments
in a movement of energy and not a little wit (sample the pizzicato passage
from 0'51" to 1'14" or its varied return from 3'45") - there's an awful lot
of imagination in this music.
The slow movement is the Quartet's heart, an absolutely beautiful movement,
serene yet troubled. At 3'16" the memorable chorale tune from the first movement
returns to be transformed, the restlessness that's been under the surface
comes to the fore at 4'24" which is then consoled by the chorale. To my ears
this is music of great passion expressed through the intimacies of chamber
music. The finale begins with a Bachian fugue on a folk-song subject but
there's nothing academic about it - this is music that is growing all the
time and going somewhere, subtly changing as it does so. At it's mid-point
the music calms to longer notes and an emotional release is sensed before
the Quartet closes in dignified glory. In his notes, John Williamson suggests
Op.109 is the masterpiece of Reger's five Quartets. I wouldn't want to argue
with that opinion.
I imagine that for many people Clarinet Quintets begin and end with those
of Mozart and Brahms. Surely there's room too for Reger's mellifluous
counterpart? This is not as strenuous or as complex a work as the E flat
Quartet. The Quintet, Reger's last completed music, may not have the immediate
charms of the Mozart or Brahms - although Reger emulates both these masterpieces
- but there is a deep beauty running throughout Reger's bittersweet declaration
which is in an expressive world of its own. There's a playful aspect to the
scherzo, its song-like trio is a delight. The slow movement seems to float
on air and has an appealing elusive quality that draws the listener in without
giving its secrets away too easily (these will come with further listening).
The finale's variations (on another folk-song idea) is the most Brahmsian
movement. Wearing autumnal colours the Quintet winds down - there's nothing
left to say.
The Vogler Quartet gives eloquent and committed performances. Karl Leister's
beauty of tone and his sensitive phrasing speak so persuasively for Reger's
cause. The recordings are full, rich and vivid.
Anyone new to Reger (especially anyone put off him by negative comments)
might like to sample first from orchestral works such as Romantic Suite,
Four Tone Poems after Bocklin, Serenade and the sets of variations on tunes
of Hiller and Mozart (try from Koch's survey mostly conducted by Horst Stein).
Marc-Andre Hamelin's superb recording of the Bach and Telemann Variations
(Hyperion) would be a perfect introduction to Reger's piano music. The chamber
music starting-point might just as well be this excellent Nimbus release
which is enthusiastically recommended.