Reger's piano music is a mix of small and large. This disc gives
a taste of both, with two Sonatinas and five Humoresques occupying
the first half of the programme and a second half devoted to
the monumental Bach Variations.
The contrapuntal intricacy associated with Reger is apparent
in many of these movements, although simpler textures are also
common, especially in the Sonatinas. Reger's adventurous harmonies
are also evident in most of the works, but especially in the
variations. The Sonatinas and Humoresques have a sense of lightness
that is in direct opposition to Reger's dour reputation. True
enough, the music occasionally gets too involved for its own
good, and the main difference between these short works and
similar music by, say the young Brahms, is the lack of memorable
melodies. Perversely though, that lack adds a certain quality
of its own; it means that the ear is not distracted by catchy
melodic lines, and can concentrate instead on the subtle and
variegated piano textures.
Reger was, after all, a concert pianist, and he clearly had
a good ear for the instrument's capabilities. Working in the
20th century meant that the instrument he had in
mind was closer to today's grands than anything Beethoven, Schumann
or even Brahms would have known. So when he wants to put some
weight into climaxes, or even sudden sforzandos, he can rely
on the instrument itself to provide the drama. He often helps
it out by adding octave doublings, but these are always skilfully
integrated into the contrapuntal textures.
As its title suggests, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Joh.
Seb. Bach" owes a great deal to Brahms. Comparing Reger with
Brahms always seems to me unfair on the later composer, but
here more than anywhere else, Reger actively invites such comparisons.
Reger's harmonies are a little more adventurous than those of
Brahms, and he also has a tendency to fragment the theme in
ways the Brahms would usually avoid. But like Brahms, Reger
is able to maintain the beauty and identity of the Bach theme
- taken from the cantata Aus Christi Himmelfahrt allein ich
meine Nachfahrt gründeBWV 128 - to retain
a strong sense of identity across this long set. And the fugue
at the end forms an impressive and stirring conclusion.
Wolfram Lorenzen gives excellent performances of these works.
He achieves impressive clarity, even in Reger's densest textures,
but never at the expense of the music's drama. Reger includes
a large number of dynamic indications in his piano works, and
Lorenzen sensibly takes these more as a guide than as gospel,
but always shaping the music in the way the notated dynamics
The recording was made in 1992, although this is, I suspect,
its first release. The sound quality is good but not exceptional.
The dry acoustic suggests a studio environment, but the piano
sound is boomy in some registers, especially at the bottom.
Nevertheless, an enjoyable recording, and a valuable introduction
to one of the most neglected areas of this still scandalously
neglected composer's work.