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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Chorale Fantasias:
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Op. 27
Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele, Op. 30
Wie schön leucht’t uns der Morgenstern, Op. 40/1
Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, Op. 40/2
Alle Menschen müssen sterben, Op. 52/1
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Op. 52/2
Hallelujah! Gott zu loben, Op. 52/3
Wouter van den Broek, organ.
Rec. Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands, 1989 and Stevenskerk, Nijmegen, Netherlands, 1990
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92081 [2CDs: 62.27+51.41]

The first time I ever set foot outside the United Kingdom was on a school holiday to Freiburg im Breisgau in the Black Forest in 1970. With a few friends and, inevitably, a teacher or two, I attended an organ recital there one evening and I cherish the memory of how our English teacher reacted to it. She was a highly cultured woman, and I was surprised to hear her say that she had the impression that the music, the instrument and the way it was played had all been deployed in such a way as to get you down. This two CD set of the Chorale Fantasias of Max Reger is excellent in most respects, yet I can well imagine that she would react to it in the same way as she did to that recital all those years ago.

Max Reger was a highly prolific composer whose catalogue of works features examples in most forms with the notable exception of opera. To listeners new to his music the simplest way to describe it is to say that he tried to emulate J.S. Bach by means of his own late Romantic musical vocabulary. He composed only absolute music, with no programmatic element whatever, so it’s not surprising to find him relying on all manner of contrapuntal device, notably fugue. However, even if his aims were to recreate the purity of expression of Bach, the results are quite different, possibly because of his own rather limited understanding of the earlier composer. Even allowing for the differences which follow inevitably from the two centuries between them, Reger’s music quite singularly lacks Bach’s harmonic logic and sense of organic growth even where it shares the constant surface movement of Bach’s style. Listening to the organ works of Bach we are struck by how the harmony becomes a protagonist in a kind of drama, leading the ear (and the mind) through a landscape full of tension and resolution with a serene but irresistible logic. Reger’s harmonic style is far more diffuse and even seemingly random; we are confronted with repeated modulations far from the original key, often within a single phrase, leaving us floundering and disorientated. There’s no denying the cumulative power of these pieces, though the sheer mass of sound is partly responsible for that; and that power seems present at the expense of other elements we might have hoped for, such as variety of texture and colour.

Those who know their Bach will immediately recognise many of the chorales used here. A typical treatment of a chorale is to begin with a forthright statement of the melody, heavily scored, then to subject it to more or less intricate variation, usually by way of contrapuntal additions rather than transformation of the melody itself. The chorale melody is quite obviously present for long stretches of time, which certainly helps the listener find his way around the piece. The pieces tend to close with a big statement of the chorale, often in the pedals, accompanied by massive chords or rhythmic or motivic figures which have been present throughout.

The organ used on the first disc, in the Grote Kerk at Breda, arrived at its present form only in 1966, having its origins in an organ dating from the first half of the sixteenth century. It is certainly a splendid instrument, and is, to my ears, perfectly suited to the repertoire, as is the spectacular organ at Nijmegen which features on the second disc. Both instruments are recorded quite close in very reverberant acoustics. The sound in forte and fortissimo passages is quite spectacularly impressive, but the long reverberation time, especially on the second disc, poses almost insoluble problems for the engineers in the more complex passages, and textures do sometimes become very muddy indeed. A pity, too, that the engineers responsible for the first disc decided to foreshorten slightly the decay of the final chords of each piece. Why they should be so impatient is anybody’s guess, but given the overall quality of the sound, and the challenge that recording this music in these churches must have posed, it seems a pity to take away part of the very character of the building by overzealous use of the slider controls.

The Brilliant Classics philosophy is of course collections like this one and I imagine that anyone who wants one Reger Choral Fantasia will be happy to have them all. There seems little point in comparing any one of these performances with other individual readings. Listening to these works without a score it is difficult in any case to assess the quality of Wouter van den Broek’s playing, but it does seem very accomplished and, above all, convincing, so it’s difficult to imagine that anyone acquiring this set as a way of getting to know these particular pieces will be disappointed. I have certainly found it very interesting to make the acquaintance of this music, but I will also be looking out for other recordings if only to see to what extent another point of view will throw new light on this particular music. The discs are very cheap, of course, and there really is no reason to hesitate if the programme appeals. The booklet notes are informative – there is quite a lot about the two instruments – but they have been translated into English by someone whose command of the language seems only moderate.

Many of my musical acquaintances over the years, especially the organists, have warmly recommended that I get to know the music of Max Reger. I’m still learning, but to my ears there’s no escaping a certain dour quality, a relentlessness, a feeling that everything is overscored, even the quieter passages. And when those pedals get going at full blast, often combined with highly intricate contrapuntal figuration in the hands – try Alle Menschen müssen sterben to hear what I mean – I do tend to sympathise with my former English teacher.

William Hedley

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