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Max REGER (1873-1916)
CD 1
Four Tone Poems after Böcklin, Op. 128 (1912) [25:08]
Variations on a Theme of Hiller, Op. 100 (1907) [38:13]
CD 2
Psalm 100, Op. 106 (1910) [27:44]
Variations on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 132 (1914) [25:08]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Neeme Järvi (opp. 100, 128)
Russian State Symphonic Capella (Op. 106)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky (opp. 106, 132)
rec. 6-7 July 1989, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Järvi); December 2000, Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory (Polyansky). DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8998 [66:50 + 59:45]
Experience Classicsonline

Max Reger was a prolific composer, but he also died young, at the age of just 43. Because he was so productive there have been many misconceptions about him, the kind of misconceptions that generally are made before even a note of his music has been heard. The unkindest jibe of all is the old one that his music, like his name, sounds the same backwards or forwards. Nothing could be further from the truth, and there could be no better initiation into the rewards Reger's music can offer than acquiring this attractive and keenly priced set of two CDs.

Just a few years after Rachmaninov had written his masterly tone poem inspired by the painter Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead, Reger followed suit with his own set of four tone poems. They can be played either singly or together as a quasi-symphony. As such they each have their individual personalities and are identified by two slower and two faster tempo priorities. For example, Im Spiel der Wellen (The Play of the Waves) is a scherzo, a movement which inevitably invites parallels with Jeux de vagues (La Mer), having a sparkling orchestral character which is remarkably similar to Debussy's masterpiece. At the opposite remove Der Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead) was inspired by the same painting as Rachmaninov's tone poem, and is a sensitively drawn study of much tenderness of feeling. Taken as a group or individually, these Böcklin pieces must rank among the composer's finest achievements, and Järvi draws sensitive performances from the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Reger was fond of employing variation form, and he treats Ferdinand Hiller's original theme to a sequence of eleven variations and final fugue. The results are intriguing and satisfying on every level, not least in terms of imaginative orchestration. There is abundant inventiveness at every turn, from the extremes of sparkling virtuosity and deeply felt eloquence, while the closing fugue is astonishing. It is hard to imagine this music being better served, either in performance or in recorded sound. The first CD was originally issued in 1991 on Chandos CHAN 8794.

In some quarters Reger has been given a reputation as being a 'difficult' composer, abounding in intellectual complexity and therefore unapproachable. This is far from the case, as the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart will testify. The music derives from the familiar principal theme of the opening movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata in A major, K331. Mozart himself employed it as the basis of a variation movement, but since his treatment is orchestral rather than solo, Reger can employ a host of different options. Initially his priority seems to be sheer beauty of orchestral sound, but as the music proceeds so the subtleties develop, until the fugue is a veritable tour de force of intellectual compositional rigour, a really strong conclusion. Again the orchestral playing is excellent, the Russian State Orchestra with their conductor Valeri Polyanski responding to every opportunity Reger creates. While the recording is not quite as detailed and atmospheric as that for Järvi in Amsterdam, it is still successful in conveying the composer's intentions and brings the listener satisfaction in its orchestral colouring.

The performances of these two sets of variations compare favourably with the alternatives, most particularly the Naxos CD (8.553079) which couples them on a single disc from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Franz-Paul Decker. This too offers satisfactory performances full of musical insights, but in the final analysis does not have either the subtlety of playing or the quality of recording to be found on this new Brilliant Classics compilation.

Much less well known than the other three compositions, Reger's setting for chorus and orchestra of Psalm 100 is coupled with the Hiller Variations in another performance from Moscow. The textures are often heavy and dense, and the recorded sound therefore does not avoid density. There are four movements in this work from 1910, the first of them - 'Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle welt' - having originally been written two years previously in honour of the 350th anniversary of the University of Jena. As befitted the occasion, this lively movement at tempo Allegro abounds in vitality amid a mood of celebration, while its successors in the final Psalm 100 version complete a quasi-symphonic sequence, akin to Andante, scherzo and concluding Allegro. As such Psalm 100 has a balanced overall shape which brings musical satisfaction even though the choral-orchestral presentation is at times somewhat unrelenting. Brilliant Classics offer useful notes by Malcolm MacDonald, but no texts or translations. This second disc first issued in 2002 can still be found at full price as CHAN9917.

Terry Barfoot




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