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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Clarinet Quintet in A major Op.146 (1909)
String Quartet in Eb major Op. 109 (1915)
Wenzel Fuchs (clarinet)
Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Rec. 19th-22nd April 1999 Kleiner Sendesaal SFB, Berlin.
NAXOS 8.554510 [72.18]
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There are a number of reasons why the composer Max Reger is not as popular as he might be.

Firstly the vastness of his catalogue; a brief perusal of the article in Grove reveals works up to Op. 146 - the present Clarinet Quintet. However, over and above this high opus number, there is a whole range of additional works including a huge quantity of songs, piano pieces and arrangements that are not listed in the official count. It is quite difficult for the average listener to gain an overview of Reger's works, never mind a broad understanding.

Secondly, most of Reger's music is absolute; that is to say that Reger has not written a large number of tone or symphonic poems. These were so popular at the time he was composing and appears to many to be an omission. There are no operas. And finally there is no cycle of symphonies. That, for many, is the ultimate test of the worth of a composer. Let it be added that many of his works are structured to symphonic proportions and are of considerable length.

Thirdly he was not always the easiest of people to get on with - to say the least. He tended to be condescending towards those who did not appreciate and understand music as he did. This resulted in certain negative contemporary criticism that has not been forgotten even after 85 years.

Fourthly, there is an active rumour in musical circles that his music is boring; that he lacks emotion; it is stated that all his music simply has intellectual content with no capacity to move the heart. Many believe that it is all written in strict counterpoint; academic essays in the style of Fux or Palestrina. It is argued that his writing is mainly discursive and argumentative and is never lyrical and warm. With slightly more right on their side, many assume that he pushes the bounds of the tonal system so far that it breaks down; he uses excessive chromaticism. Others insist his music is impossible to play. The list could go on and on.

It is not my intention to refute these points in detail here. However, after reviewing this present CD I feel that it is necessary to make some statement for the defence.

Music can, we all know, be either absolute or programme music. Ignore vocal for the moment. Reger wrote absolute music. Music is traditionally felt to gain its interest by either profound lyricism or by technical wizardry. Reger choose to do neither. Not for him the virtuosity of Liszt or the sentimental tunes of other less rigorous composers. I agree that Reger's music has a high 'cerebral' content. However this only means that the music is less rapid in revealing its secrets. The music has to be worked at. Only then will it be seen to be technically superb, having warmth and being lyrical. It is never overblown.

Secondly, for the defence, it is not axiomatic that music that is absolute lacks emotional depth. I do not need to list works by highly regarded composers that are at once absolute and emotionally charged.

Thirdly the two works on this CD prove that Reger was most certainly not 'as dry as dust.' He has much to offer both to the players and to listeners. Here, on this present disc, is ample proof that Reger can write highly charged music, with superb technical content but which never sinks into sentimentality, banality or fireworks for the sake of fireworks.

The earliest work on this disc is the String Quartet in E flat Major Op. 109 written in 1909. It is one of five such works from the composer's mature years. The emphasis is on argument and debate between the voices. Much of the writing seems to be sparse. There is much chromatic musing. However, the warmth in these pages is never far away. Often the music is exploring a dichotomy between aggression and lyricism. The composer uses frequent changes of tempo to highlight this argument.

The slow movement, the Larghetto is particularly attractive. Here we have chordal accompaniment of melody as opposed to contrapuntal development. The quartet ends with an excellent fugue that eventually becomes a double fugue of sorts. A fine conclusion to an extremely attractive work.

The piece became a favourite of string quartet groups playing before the First World War. Many of these players had sidelined Reger after the production of the String Quartet Op. 74 of 1903. This earlier work was seen to be pushing the boundaries of acceptable avant-garde too far.

The second work on this CD is the Clarinet Quintet in A major Op. 146 that was composed by the composer in 1915. It was the last major work to be written before his death in 1916. In fact he died only four days after posting the completed manuscript to his publisher, Simrock. There has been a considerable negative criticism of this work. This has mainly been that it is no more than 'Brahms regurgitated'. There is some credibility to this argument. The Clarinet Quintet Op.115 (1891) by the earlier composer is one of very few works in existence for the combination. It was obviously in Reger's mind at the time of composition. Furthermore he himself regarded his place in the musical world as being a direct descendant of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

The reality of this work is that it is manifestly Reger; a special feature being the intense chromaticism and the counterpoint which is both "bitter-sweet and lyrical."

The texture of this chamber work is its chief glory. There is a fusion of string tone and reed tone. It is not a clarinet solo with string quartet accompaniment. The five parts are woven together with a consummate skill. The four movements have an inherent unity to them that, to me at any rate, makes this an extremely satisfying work. It is the Larghetto that is the best candidate for popularity - if that is what is wanted for this master's works. It is truly beautiful with references to the first movement making this a very precious piece of music. The last movement is an attractive theme with variations.

The Clarinet Quintet is a retrospective work; not only of Max Reger's career but also for the trajectory of music from Bach to Brahms and beyond. Autumnal colours, yes; but hope springs eternal.

This is a beautifully produced CD. It has a full 72 minutes of music. Two of Reger's most attractive works are presented on the one disc.

The programme notes could be a little bit more fulsome - however they are adequate for most listeners. I feel that when works are less well known they need to be supported by more detailed explanation and 'sitz in lieben.'

The clarinettist is Wenzel Fuchs; he is a master of his instrument. He is well able to produce the vast range of dynamics that the Clarinet Quintet demands. But that is to be expected. A brief perusal of his career details reveals that he has played for both the Vienna State Opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra from the same city. He now plays with two chamber groups in Berlin. When not actually playing he teaches and gives masterclasses.

The Philharmonic Quartet has played world-wide. It has a huge repertoire that ranges from the classics to modern.

There are a few other versions of note. These include the Joachim, Mannheim & Vogler Quartets playing the Op. 109 and two versions of the Clarinet Quintet with Leister accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Quartet and the Vogler Quartet respectively.

Max Reger will never be a popular composer. He is unlikely to feature on Classic FM's 'Classic Romance' - although who knows? But because composers are not popular in a commercial sense does not diminish their worth.

This CD allows listeners to hear a fine recording of two of Reger's late, retrospective works. They are full of structure, emotion, warmth and beauty. An excellent introduction to listeners new to this composer's chamber music. An even better disc for those already convinced by the unique sound world of Max Reger.

John France

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