A wonderful disc this, and a testament to yet another undervalued
dimension of the artistry of Max Reger. Very few of the common
complaints about Reger's music apply here: the music is consistently
inspired, often light, elegant and wholly free from the stodginess
that blights so many of his organ works. The broad theme of
the compilation is secular choral music, but all that really
means is that none of the music is specifically liturgical.
Religious themes certainly make themselves felt, and the music
moves between states of devotion, veneration and praise. A few
of the poems that Reger sets are genuinely secular, those of
Nikolas Lenau for example, and Gustav Falke, but a strong devotional
undercurrent flows even through these works. It is a religious
feeling borne out of a complete absence of irony, and for a
composer working in the age of Mahler and Richard Strauss, the
self-imposed seriousness of this aesthetic almost seems to have
been transplanted from an earlier age. But while he is always
serious, he is never dour.
Stylistically, the most important predecessor to this music
is Brahms, and you could be forgiven for occasionally mistaking
individual passages here for some of Brahms' early choral works.
But then you'll meet an unusual harmonic shift or a flowery
piano interpolation that clearly belongs to a later time. Generally
though, Reger's approach to choral writing is to use simple
harmonies and homophonic textures, but to regularly jump between
only distantly related harmonies, often several times within
the span of a single phrase. The only exception to Reger's stylistic
conventions is the 'Drei Gesänge' Op.111b for unaccompanied
women's voices. Here the musical textures are even more simple,
and the sound-world tends towards the medieval. This level of
musical simplicity really brings out the best in Reger, he wasn't
much of a melodist, yet there is a lyricism to much of his music
that can really carry these simple, straightforward textures.
Reger died young and the last year or two of his life were extraordinarily
prolific. There seem to be many, many works - orchestral, piano,
chamber, organ - that are habitually described as amongst his
very last. The two major choral works that frame this programme,
'Der Einsiedler' and 'Requiem' apparently qualify too. Together
they make up his Op.144 out of a total of 147, suggesting they
are indeed very late. The music of both works is almost mystical
in its use of widely spaced chords, unusual harmonic shifts
and dreamy arpeggios in the accompaniment. The most interesting
of the two is 'Requiem', a kind of abbreviated response to Brahms'
'German Requiem', with many stylistic links. Reger's Requiem
is a term with complex textual issues. He began a setting of
the Requiem mass in his younger years, but it remains incomplete,
the fragments having the misleading opus number 145a. The Requiem
that appears here is not a liturgical setting but rather a setting
of a poem with the same name by Christian Friedrich Hebbel.
To complicate matters further, this Requiem (and 'Der Einsiedler'
too) were written for choir with orchestral accompaniment, but
Reger's version with piano accompaniment predominates these
days, to the extent that the work is played at all.
The performances are all good. The choir 'Consortium' doesn't
have a very inspiring name, but is an impressive ensemble. This
is only their second disc, their first being an album of Brahms
songs (Hyperion CDA67775), to which this should provide the
ideal complement. The sound of the sopranos at the very top
is sometimes a little abrasive, although I'm more inclined to
blame the composer for his repeated use of the upper register
than the singers for the occasional brittleness of texture.
The choir is small, which aids the articulation and tuning,
but sometimes makes for underpowered climaxes. Given that the
Op.144 works were written with a full symphony orchestra in
mind, the composer's intention must surely have been for a choir
at least twice this size. But the music is flexible and retains
its symphonic grandeur even in this more intimate environment.
Not that it is all pseudo-symphonic; the other works on the
disc, especially the 'Drei Gesänge' demonstrate the directness
and simplicity that characterises much of Reger's music. It
is a surprisingly varied programme, and an impressively performed
disc. Any fans of Brahms' choral music would be well advised
to take a chance on it.