For many years I slotted
Max Reger into a rather unflattering
personal pigeonhole labelled, to paraphrase
the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
"mostly dull". He was not
alone: joining him in this select group
were such august names as Paul Hindemith
and Hans Pfitzner. Whatever music I
tried it seemed to be imbued alternately
with a greyness or opacity, allied to
an earnest worthiness, which made it
distinctly unattractive. Moreover there
was more than a whiff of academia in
Whether it’s the effect
of anno domini or the development of
a more discriminating palate, I’m not
sure, but I find my attitude has changed.
Not that I pretend to enjoy all Reger
- or all Hindemith and Pfitzner for
that matter - but to arbitrarily write
these composers off I now see as a misjudgement.
True, those who enjoy
immediately attractive melody in their
organ music - as in Guilmant or Widor
for instance - will often be disappointed
in their German counterpart. Often that
is ... but not always. Try almost any
of the delightful trios on this disc
and you could be agreeably surprised.
Nevertheless the main
works on this disc illustrate the predominant
feature of Reger’s organ composition;
the skill in using and manipulating
structures, often to massively impressive
Reger was born into
an average Bavarian family, in Brand
to be precise, in 1873. His father,
a schoolmaster and amateur musician,
recognised Max’s talent and arranged
for him to study with Adalbert Lindner
the town organist at nearby Leiden.
Later Max moved to
Sondershausen and Wiesbaden as assistant
to a new teacher Hugo Reimann. Military
service intervened and came as quite
a shock to his system and so Reger went
home to his parents to recuperate. His
sojourn there became a spur to composition
and he began work on a series of organ
pieces designed to "test"
the abilities of his friend Karl Straube.
Indeed Straube, who later assumed the
prestigious post at the Thomaskirche
in Leipzig, became a champion of this
Reger’s rather "academic"
reputation was in part fuelled by his
adherence to "absolute music"
and his rejection - largely - of programme
music; in this he was nearer in general
terms to Brahms than Liszt or Wagner.
Also despite being a catholic, he made
extensive use of Lutheran chorales in
structurally complex fantasias, chorale
preludes and other forms.
Hence it comes as no
surprise that he should essay such a
work as the Introduction and Fugue.
At over 37 minutes it is among the longest
and most impressive works played in
what can be loosely described as the
"regular repertory". Its greatness
however is not just a function of its
length but the masterly grasp and use
of form. Listen carefully and even if
you have no understanding of music,
a distinct structure emerges, a "journey"
is undertaken, resulting in an exultant
and satisfying homecoming.
Dedicated to Karl Straube
the piece was written in 1903 and like
all good examples of variation form
presents great contrasts of complexity
and simplicity, married in this case
to a stretching of tonality. The culminating
fugue, where subject matter is introduced
in the order of alto, soprano, tenor
and bass strands, comes to a mighty
conclusion over a dominant pedal point.
Until now my reference
recording of this work has been that
of Donald Joyce, on the William Hill,
Norman and Beard organ at Norwich Cathedral
(IMP Classics PCD 1096). On the whole
Welzel is a match for Joyce. Both offer
fine interpretations, with Welzel a
fraction slower, albeit that the American
has a technical advantage inasmuch as
his disc has separate tracks for each
variation – invaluable if you are coming
fresh to the piece. Naxos simply separates
the final fugue from the body of the
variations. Couplings meanwhile vary
and here Naxos are more generous; Joyce
simply adds another Chorale Fantasia.
I confess to being
unfamiliar with the Klais organ at Trier,
but have to report that it appears more
rounded, free of a certain hardness
that I have experienced with this builder’s
instruments elsewhere. Indeed I found
the sound overall most satisfactory,
balancing mystery with clarity, with
just an occasional passage of smudging
when a really active pedal line was
underway. Although a specification of
the organ is provided, sadly there is
no detailed description.
Fortunately there are
notes about Martin Welzel, who claims
a distinguished line of influences,
including Jean Guillou, Daniel Roth
and Wolfgang Rubsam; the latter sometime
participant and consultant to Naxos’s
"Organ Encyclopedia" project
– albeit that this styling appears to
have been dropped from recent issues.
So if you’re in the
market for something demanding but ultimately
rewarding in organ repertoire this will
be £6 or so well spent. In fact this
is my first "dip" into Welzel’s
cycle, and it’s my intention to sample
the other volumes as soon as possible.