Max REGER (1873-1916) Complete Chorale Cantatas
Auferstanden, auferstanden [10:52]
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden [16:54]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [17:35]
O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen [16:08]
Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht [8:52]
Dorothea Wagner (soprano); Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto); Florian Sievers (tenor); Michael Schönheit (organ); Gundel Jannemann-Fischer (oboe); Rainer Hucke (double bass); Reinhold Quartet
Choirs for the Congregational verses: Chor beau; Kammerchor Böhlen; Kantorei Marienbrunn; Kantorei der Marienkirche Stötteritz; Kantorei der Michaelis-Friedensgemeinde; Kantorei Taucha; Lehrerchor Leipzig; Singschule Leipzig; Gemeindechor St. Nikolai
rec. April 16-19 2015, Michaeliskirche, Leipzig, Germany CPO 777 984-2 [70:49]
Reger’s music has acquired a reputation – not altogether unjustly – for ponderous contrapuntal inscrutability, particularly in his organ and choral works. However, this complete recording of the five chorale cantatas which he composed between 1903 and 1906 might help to address that perception somewhat. True, they proceed by means of a rich web of intricate, often chromatic, harmonic progressions. But the scoring is transparent, featuring a full four-voiced choir alongside a second one giving out the chorales in unison, with organ accompaniment and a handful of vocal and instrumental soloists.
The cantatas tend to alternate the verses of a given chorale sung by a soloist on the one hand, with choral elaborations of the melody on the other, linked up by instrumental interludes. The chorale foundation of these compositions naturally recalls the model of Bach, with the combination of full choral harmonisations with an additional descant treble line carrying the chorale as a fifth part (enacting the role of the congregation) in some verses, harking back to the similar texture of the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. Certainly Bach composed choral fantasias upon chorale melodies in his religious works, but Reger’s cantatas – effectively a series of through-composed variations – resemble more closely the form of the five chorale partitas for organ BWV766 -770 by the earlier master.
The choirs and instrumentalists here maintain a consistently steady, contemplative mood in these works, which each reflect a different liturgical season or theological topic. Their quality of tone is sensitively varied, however, according to the theme of the particular cantata. ‘O wie selig’ commemorates the dead and, despite its Tristan-like chromaticisms, it remains serene and not at all strenuous or heaving, though the choir attains a mode of grandeur at the climax redolent of Brahms’s German Requiem. There is no rushing or straining either in the sober account of ‘O Haupt voll Blut’ (a chorale famous from its use in the St. Matthew Passion). The Christmas cantata ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ gives us almost too much of a good thing with the saccharine, almost sentimental, quality that is virtually inseparable from the celebrations at that time of year, and one can virtually smell the glühwein and stollen refreshments to be served afterwards. But that is testament just as much to Reger’s setting in the way that he conjures the festive atmosphere in his setting, which also cleverly weaves ‘Silent Night’ in counterpoint.
Matching the generally dignified character of these accounts are the three vocal soloists who sing with a suitable purity and focus. Dorothea Wagner tellingly adopts a more reedy vibrato for ‘Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht’ than elsewhere, but the singers never allow their own personality to intrude upon a sense of piety and devotion. It tends to be left to the instrumentalists to convey more colour. The rhapsodising of the solo violins is often sweet-toned, though the plangent, intense delivery of the solo oboe line by Gundel Jannemann-Fischer at the beginning of ‘O Haupt voll Blut’ sums up the anguished mood of Good Friday. Reger’s addition of a solo viola adds a darker, mellower character to the former cantata.
Aural balance in these recordings is sometimes distorted. The children’s chorus in verse three of ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ is a little lost behind the two solo violins, and the choir singing the congregation’s unison chorale line in ‘O wie selig’ is placed further back in the acoustic, though that draws out the antiphonal layout of the work effectively. The organ accompaniment (the one instrument common to all these settings) is also generally restrained in Michael Schönheit’s performances, and in ‘Auferstanden, auferstanden’, in particular, it sounds rather withdrawn; admittedly Reger only calls for the pedal to be used in its final verse, but a sense of monotony could surely have been avoided through the use of a wider range of effects and registrations. The group used for the congregational singing actually comprises singers from no fewer than nine German choirs, which may account for the failure to obtain a crisper and more accurate placing of the notes in terms of pitch and articulation sometimes, notably in ‘O wie selig’. But otherwise the assembly of those forces with the GewandhausChor and GewandhausKinderchor makes for some impressively monumental sequences alternating with more intimate reflections. It is presumably the director of the former, Gregor Meyer, who conducts here, but the CD notes do not make this clear.
These works may lack charisma and dynamism for some, then, but the musical presence of the performers on this recording commands attention for the most part.