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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Acht geistliche Gesänge, Op.138 (1914) [17’58"]
Drei Motetten, Op. 110 (1909-1912): No 1 Mein Odem ist schwach [15’06"]; No. 2 Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht! [15’06"]; No. 3 O Tod, wie bitter bist du [9’30"]
NDR Chor, Hamburg/Hans-Christoph Rademann
Recorded in NDR Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg, February 2003 DDD
CARUS 83.154 [57’42"]

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Last December I reviewed another disc of a cappella choral music by Reger by these same artists.(review) I wrote at the time: "The singing on display here is absolutely first rate. I can’t fault the choir on any aspect whatsoever. The balance is superb, dynamic control and contrast are most impressive, tuning is flawless so far as I can tell (I don’t have perfect pitch) and the ensemble is crisp and accurate. Rademann has clearly prepared his singers excellently and this is as fine an example of choral singing as I’ve heard in a long time. The engineers deserve credit too for reproducing the choir in clear, natural sound." Well, I’m sorry to be repetitive but exactly the same is true of this companion disc entitled O Tod, wie bitter bist du. The achievement is all the more impressive since the music of the Three Motets in particular is more complex and demanding.

The Acht geistliche Gesänge are very late works, dating from 1914, and were composed after Reger’s treatment for a nervous breakdown. Indeed, in a parallel with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, the pieces are dedicated to one of the physicians who treated him. The texts are taken from a compilation, Deutsche Psalter (Ein Jahrtausend geistlicher Dichtung) from which Reger had previously drawn for his Op. 137, a set of twelve sacred songs for solo voice and organ. This information is contained in the succinct but very useful liner notes. The settings are essentially homophonic and the choir is divided into between four and eight parts. The music is firmly rooted in the German Protestant tradition and the Lutheran chorale casts a beneficent shadow. To quote from the liner note: "The pieces show Reger’s mastery of the straightforward setting (consciously avoiding complicated chromatic passages) – a masterly ‘new simplicity.’" Rademann and his choir give beautifully moulded and very sympathetic accounts of these lovely little pieces, none of which is more than three minutes long.

The Drei Motetten, scored for seven- or eight-part choir, are anything but simple. As will be seen from the timings they are all substantial pieces and all show the more complex side of Reger’s muse. Mein Odem is schwach (‘My spirit is weak’) dates from 1909 and sets words from the Book of Job. It begins in subdued darkness and the NDR choir’s singing is superbly controlled and very intense. At the words "Führwahr, Gespött umgibt mich" (‘Behold, they mock me cruelly’) the music becomes jagged and vigorous (track 9, 5’34"). Then a completely different mood is struck at "Sei du selbst mein Bürge bei dir" (‘Be yourself my stronghold sure’). Here Reger provides a slow, quiet chorale-like passage which is much more consolatory in nature (7’30"). The piece ends with an extensive double fugue (9’57") which is complex, highly chromatic and which must be very difficult to sing at all, let alone with the marvellous clarity of articulation that’s on display here. What could easily be just a dry contrapuntal exercise in lesser hands becomes instead an exhilarating, affirmative conclusion.

Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht! (‘O Lord, chasten me not’) was composed in 1910 and is, if anything, even more testing than its predecessor. The words are taken from several Psalms. The opening section is emotionally (and harmonically) highly charged. Rademann’s splendid singers find a wide range of expression here and their dynamic control is superb. There’s a brief, homophonic passage (track 10, 6’10") at "Ich liege und schlafe ganz in Frieden" (‘I lie down and slumber, deeply at peace’). The words invite music of quiet and loveliness. Reger rises to the challenge and so do the performers, who sing it beautifully. Yet again, the conclusion is in the form of a fearsomely difficult, chromatic double fugue, which must present a huge challenge to sustain over some 6 ½ minutes. In the notes we read of this piece: "The challenges, which can scarcely be overcome, particularly the concluding double fugue, have prevented more frequent performances of the work…" Well, all I can say is that the challenges seem here to be treated as an opportunity rather than a problem.

The last of the set, from which this CD takes its title, is O Tod, wie bitter bist du (‘O death, how bitter you are’), which was composed in 1912. to words from the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Though shorter than its companions it is still a piece of significant substance. Reger himself described it as "mortally sad…It will be a shockingly sad work with a transfiguring conclusion." The music begins in the depths of grief and continues in this vein for quite some time. However, Reger is true to his word. At the words "O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen" (‘O death, what balm you are’) the music takes on the form of a slow, chorale (track 11, 6’36") that gradually brings comfort until on those very words the piece ends in the relative radiance of the key of E major. This motet, then, encompasses a wide range of emotions and it is convincingly communicated thanks to the exceptionally fine singing of this expert German choir.

I’ve described the Motets at some length because they may be unfamiliar to many readers, as they were to me. They are splendid works, well worth getting to know, and Reger could not wish for better advocacy than his music receives here. The documentation is very good. There are informative notes (on which I have drawn for this review) in English, French and German and the full texts are provided, though there is only an English translation

This is a marvellous disc, which I recommend very strongly indeed.

John Quinn

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