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Berlin Classics

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Works for Orchestra

CD1 [63:59]
Eine Ballettsuite op. 130 (1913) [17:56]
Konzert im alten Stil op. 123 (1912) [23:16]
Beethoven-Variationen op. 86 (1904, 1915) [22:29]
Karl Suske (violin)
Heinz Schunk (violin) (op. 123)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner
rec. 1973, Original CD release 01.08.2002 as 0032242BC
CD2 [44:33]
Hiller-Variationen op. 100 (1907) [44:33]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Franz Konwitschny
rec. 1963, Original CD release 15.03.2002 as 0032152BC
CD3 [61:31]
Mozart-Variationen op. 132 (1914) [32:23]
Vier Tondichtungen nach A. Böcklin op. 128 (1913) [28:57]
Walter Hartwich (violin) (Böcklin)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Heinz Bongartz (Böcklin)
Dresdner Philharmonie/Heinz Bongartz
rec. 1970, 1965, Original CD release 18.06.1994 as 0021772BC
CD4 [74:14]
Sinfonietta op. 9 (1905) [50:10]
An die Hoffnung op. 124 (1912) [11:54]
Hymnus der Liebe op. 136 (1914) [11:57]
Annelies Burmeister (alto) (opp. 124, 136)
Günter Siering (violin) (op. 9)
Dresdner Philharmonie/Heinz Bongartz (Sinfonietta)
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig/Heinz Bongartz
rec. 1973, 1969, Original CD release 01.08.2002 as 0032232BC
CD5 [57:40]
Violinkonzert A-Dur op. 101 (1908) [57:40]
Manfred Scherzer (violin)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1984, Original CD release 12.03.1996 as 0091242BC
CD6 [52:31]
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester f-Moll (1910) [52:31]
Amadeus Webersinke (piano)
Dresdner Philharmonie/Günther Herbig
rec. 1973, Original CD release 15.04.2002 as 0002532CCC
CD7 [41:45]
Symphonischer Prolog zu einer Tragödie op. 108 (1908) [26:02]
Eine romantische Suite op. 125 (1912) [26:19]
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin/Heinz Rögner
rec. 1974, Original CD release 12.10.1995 as 0031192BC
Rec. 1963-1984. DDR. ADD
BERLIN CLASSICS - EDEL 0183992BC [7 CDs: 63:59 + 44:33 + 61:31 + 74:14 + 57:40 + 41:45 + 52:31]

This is a convenient and compact way of exploring much of Reger’s orchestral music. In fact there are no other comparable single box Reger collections. Of course single label collections are not necessarily the best way of approaching a composer. Here though the results are recommendable; the more so at bargain price.

Reger connoisseurs are likely to recommend a more targeted approach and some will take exception to the analogue sound which is nevertheless perfectly healthy and clear. Picking and choosing amongst the catalogues there is a fine two CD collection of radio recordings conducted by Scherchen on CPO. The Böcklin Pictures and Hiller Variations are on a highly commended Chandos from Järvi and the Concertgebouw. There are a couple of Segerstam discs on Bis and these should be full of character.

The only enterprise comparable to the Edel box is the series of eight Koch International CDs from the Bamberg orchestra and Horst Stein. These CDs have now been deleted and were only ever issued individually. The recordings were more up to date although even then they compared with the best FM rather than the sort of stunning studio sound Stein had been accorded when recording Sibelius with Decca in the 1970s. Perhaps Koch will now think of reissuing those recordings in a bargain box.

The conductor line-up for Edel reads like a roll-call of the DDR’s major talent with the young Blomstedt probably the best known. Konwitschny is a golden era figure and his recordings are much sought after. Otherwise we have conductors whose recordings are now only gradually making a distinctive reputation for them: Rögner, Suitner and Bongartz. Bongartz in particular emerges from this experience with real merit.

Reger was not short of celebrity premieres for his orchestral works. The Ballet Suite was premiered by Josef Stransky in Bremen which is where Felix Mottl directed the Sinfonietta’s premiere in 1905. Ferdinand Löwe gave the Vienna premiere of the Beethoven Variations. Fritz Steinbach presided over the first performance of the Hiller in Köln. Julius Buths gave the Böcklin Poems in Essen in 1913. The Violin Concerto’s first outing was a very prestigious affair with Henri Marteau as soloist and Nikisch conducting - Leipzig, 1908. Nikisch too was the conductor for the Piano Concerto in 1910 when the soloist was Frieda Kwast-Hodapp. Nikisch was the dedicatee of the Symphonic Prolog but the premiere was directed by Fritz Steinbach in Köln in 1909.

These Edel recordings are not in the first flush of youth. The earliest was made in 1963; the latest in 1984 just one year after the launch of the compact disc. They all derive from Berlin Classics and would first have been issued on LP in the then German Democratic Republic. They are however very good indeed. I was surprised how excellent the 1963 Konwitschny recording sounded.

We are told in the liner note that the Ballet Suite was hardly what one expected from Reger. In fact the first of the six movements is pretty much exactly what I would have expected - at least at first: that signature density and heaviness of pace. The deliciously alive Harlequin finds its parallels in the Böcklin PoemsAt play in the Waves. The valse d’amour is sumptuously Straussian - and is very uncharacteristic of Reger. As if to atone for these ‘sins’ Reger starts the Finale in typically busy fashion.

The suite stands alone. It was not part of a larger ballet and although it may have been danced it was not written to be choreographed and staged. The movement titles link the music with the Commedia dell’arte. The stories of Pantalon and Colombine and of Pierrot and Pierrette were popular at the time - witness the contemporaneous works of Holbrooke, Bantock and others. By the way was the further movement, Pantalon, ever completed and if so has it survived?

The op. 123 Concerto in the Olden Style is in three movements and apes the baroque. Neo-classical? Yes, but it clothes its athleticism in heavy fabrics; try the start of the first and last movements. Nevertheless Reger does keep in touch with the work’s roots through soloistic writing. The Largo is affecting and is beautifully done by Suitner and his Berlin orchestra. All credit to the Edel team for the long pause between the end of the Concerto and the start of the Beethoven Variations. As with the Mozart set Reger preserves the Beethovenian accent throughout although it is amongst his more ponderous works. Again perhaps if Bongartz had been at the helm things might have been even better although in fairness Suitner is excellent in the other two pieces. Even so the Variations end with one of those rigid fugues that cast a pall every time Reger gives in to canonic temptation.

Despite being the oldest recording here Konwitschny’s Hiller Variations has plenty of depth and gripping impact. Again this is delicate writing; witness the blessedly prominent presence of the harp in the first two variations. Elsewhere Reger is drawn back to those iron-hobnails (trs. 5 and 7). An almost Gallic tenderness (Masques et Bergamasques and Danses Sacrés et Danses Profanes) is revealed in a lovingly shaped Andante sostenuto. But my how he loves his fugues! The final fugal movement runs to just short of ten minutes.

Heinz Bongartz (1894-1978) conducts the Dresdner Philharmonie on CDs 3 and 4. He has a good feeling for forward movement and might well have been a better choice than the sometimes becalmed Rögner for the Symphonic Prolog and the Romantic Suite. He was also very well treated by the engineers in 1973. The sound is vivid - full of impact and only vulnerable in the edginess of the massed violins. The horns in the first movement are gloriously rendered. Reger planned this work as a serenade in the manner of Brahms’ two examples. It is discursive and while it has Brahms’ manner and weightiness of texture it looks far less to the ominous First Symphony and more to the sunnier episodes in the Second. Was Reger intimidated by the Symphony? We have a 50 minute Symphonic Prologue in a single movement and a Sinfonietta that is just as long but this time in four movements.

Standing out in this company are the two scenas for alto and orchestra. These are substantial pieces each running just over eleven minutes. The first sets Hölderlin’s An die Hoffnung in sumptuous style although for a song about hope this is remarkably mournful stuff. Hymnus der Liebe takes a poem by Ludwig Jacobowski. Reger sets it as if against the backdrop of an ominous night sky with Gothic clouds afloat. This continuum is relieved by the uncoiling of slowly coaxed climaxes. There is some operatic drama at 7:40.

Bongartz delivers an excellent Mozart Variations which is full of bubbling life and some delightful delicacy. Again it is superbly recorded as also are the Böcklin Tone Poems op. 128. The second movement Vivace (At play in the Waves) draws on Berlioz’s spindrift lightness of touch. The Isle of the Dead is suitably funereal and with a strongly sustained darkened atmosphere. It was written four years after Rachmaninov’s own Isle of the Dead. The final Bacchanal does not have the sprightly airiness of Saint-Saëns. Instead this is a very Teutonic celebration: all knightly tabards, brimming steins and heavy-footed dances.

The Piano Concerto is a work of strenuously muscular pianism and owes unashamed tribute to the First Piano Concerto of Brahms, a composer he held in high esteem. It has attracted few champions and Webersinke joins only Gerhard Oppitz and Peter Serkin in tackling the work in the studio. The second movement starts in turmoil but soon finds its pellucid metier. Listen to the calming liquid dreaminess at 10.54. It’s not short at 41:45 but it’s short beside the almost hour long Violin Concerto which has had just as few champions on record. I know of only three recordings: Edith Peinemann (Vox LP?) who was persuaded to record the piece by Rudolf Serkin; Walter Forchert (a Koch CD that I hope to review eventually) and the present recording. I heard the Peinemann at least fifteen years ago. I have never heard the Forchert although I know his utterly passionate approach to Reger from his recording of the Reger Symphonic Rhapsody and Suite (both for violin and orchestra and both on Koch Schwann 3-1498-2 H1). Forchert will be worth hearing. Scherzer is nevertheless very convincing and his tone and the intensity of the music-making present the concerto in a very strong light. It is a work of lyrical autumnal blaze, a grand landscape but with gentle contours. There are quite a few passages that are decidedly Elgarian - listen to the grandeur of the end of the first movement. Reger saw the Violin Concerto as a natural continuation of the ‘grand tradition’ in the line of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I wondered if my attention would wander but was held by the quality of Scherzer’s music-making. His concentration, passion and ability to articulate a long golden spinning line. Some may take exception to Scherzer’s clearly audible intakes of breath at his first entry although I did not notice them later. The work offers little violinistic display although there are some showy moments in the cadenza at the end of the first movement. After the dreamy Largo comes the Finale with some lighter-hearted moments. However the sense of autumnal passion arches over everything.

Rögner (b. 1929) was born in Leipzig and recorded extensively for Eterna. The Symphonic Prelude is a brooding work which moves in languid paragraphs between tenacious Brahmsian tragedy and impressionistic tension. Rögner conveys the languor of the piece although I am sure more could have been made of the tortured tragedy. It is here recorded in a version cut down by the composer from its original fifty minutes. One of these days I hope we will be allowed to hear the full version. On the same disc comes A Romantic Suite ‘after poems by Eichendorff’; these are printed in the booklet in German only. Rögner again revels in the languid so that even the elfin play of the Scherzo Vivace has the slow honey of sleep in its joints. Once again the Finale with its diaphanous dreamy textures suggests Griffes’ White Peacock and Pleasure Dome. There are some undeniably telling moments in this music as when the horns echo softly back and forth in the Finale.

The booklet notes by Ulf Brenken give us the essentials about the music although I would have liked to have had precise recording dates and locations.

The rigid board wallet used by Edel is now a regular visitor to the collector’s shelving. It takes up only 2.5cm of precious space yet contains seven CDs each in its own stiff card sleeve.

Heartfelt music-making across these warm-hearted and sometimes languorous works. There’s even some impressionistic influence that may yet surprise you if you have been influenced by the usual Reger caricature. Of course he also runs true to accustomed form when succumbing to the fugue or the ponderously thudded dance. Irresistible and more often than not an antidote to ‘received wisdom’.

Rob Barnett

Note: Reger's Symphonic Prologue to a Tragedy is indeed recorded in a abridged version, but it is not true that it is shortened from 50 to actually 26 minutes. The optional cut, indicated by Reger himself in the printed full score, runs to some 7 minutes. Unabridged recordings are available from Gerd Albrecht (Koch) and Leif Segerstam (BIS), both playing about 34 minutes. Florian



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