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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Complete Organ Works
Martin Schmeding (organ)
rec. 2014-2016
Complete track-listing below
CYBELE RECORDS 051500 [17 SACDs: 19:24:00]

Following the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, organ music suffered something of a decline, becoming an obsolete genre that not even the contributions of Mendelssohn and Liszt could satisfactorily rehabilitate. It fell to Max Reger to re-establish the instrument’s respectability, granting him the accolade of the greatest German composer for organ since his illustrious predecessor. Reger is best known today for his organ music, and intimate familiarity with his prolific oeuvre has generally been the exclusive preserve of organists.

Max Reger died prematurely at the age of only 43 in 1916, and this centenary milestone has not passed unnoticed by record companies. In addition to Warner Classics Centenary Collection, offering a broad conspectus of the composer’s work, there have been a number of organ releases that have piqued interest, including a very fine 2-CD set from MDG featuring the Chorale Fantasies played by Balázs Szabó, which I had the pleasure of reviewing earlier in the year (review).
Martin Schmeding recorded this complete cycle for Cybèle over a two year period, between 2014 and 2016. Thirteen organs, exclusively historic Sauer and Walcker instruments, located throughout Germany, were employed for this mammoth project. Each organ has been carefully chosen for its unique qualities, to highlight the idiosyncrasies of each piece. These were the very organs from which the composer gained inspiration, and included are instruments from the different stages of Reger's compositional oeuvre. It is notable that the period between 1880 and 1920 saw significant developments in organ building. Schmeding also uses new editions of the scores, courtesy of Carus Verlag.
For the technically minded, Cybèle’s SACDs provide the listener with three options: i) one-dimensional stereo sound; ii) two-dimensional 5.0 channel surround sound; iii) 3D-binaural-stereo sound. The CDs are hybrids, but an SACD player is required for the high-resolution versions. As an alternative Cybèle offers the 2D and 3D versions as a download on their website. The 3D-binaural-stereo sound is intended for headphone use, giving the listener the experience of a live event with natural sound and spatial impression, with localisation above, below, front and back, approximating to normal human hearing. A voice test at the start of each disc, in German and English, allows you to set the volume, extremely important considering the wide dynamic range of this music.

What better way to open volume 1 than with the Phantasie und Fuge über B.A.C.H. op. 46 (1900), a mighty monolith in which the composer pays homage to Bach, employing his predecessor's theme from The Art of Fugue. "B-A-C-H," in German notation, corresponds to B-A-C-B-flat, and this gave Reger the scope to explore the endless possibilities of the organ. Schmeding’s performance on the magnificent Sauer organ (1894/1905) of Bremen Cathedral is breathtakingly virtuosic. His performance explores all of the instrument’s potential in terms of colour and dynamics. This is probably my favourite Reger organ work, and certainly the most compelling and spellbinding performance of it I’ve ever heard. Ending the final Volume 16 is another extensive canvas, the Introduction, Variations and Fugue, Op. 73 (1903), another work I'm immensely fond of. Its chromatic daring and impressionistic wash does pose challenges to the listener as well as to the performer, yet each time I hear it, it yields afresh with copious rewards. There's such clarity in Schmeding's playing that the music never sounds dense and congested. This is especially so in the fugue where the contrapuntal strands are clearly defined. The climax is earth-shattering.

The Introduction, Passacaglia und Fugue in E minor, Op. 127 of 1913, was penned during the last period of the composer’s life. I’m particularly drawn to Schmeding’s choice of instrument – the Walcker Organ of the Luther Church, Wiesbaden. Built in 1911 it is almost contemporaneous with the piece. The bright acoustic showcases it to perfection, a colossal fresco which Schmeding paints with a myriad coloured palette. The venue is also sympathetic to the densely chromatic chordal writing, offering transparency. Sitting proudly in the centre, the Passacaglia theme is followed by no fewer than 26 variations. The work is capped off with an astonishing double fugue.

The seven Chorale Fantasies are amongst the composer's finest achievements, and whilst not easily accessible on first acquaintance, I found that perseverance yielded rich rewards. Grand scaled and tortuously chromatic, they form the core of a body of organ works Reger composed over a fruitful period of two years (1898-1900) at the home of his parents in Weiden, where he had returned, ostensibly for a period of convalescence. The last three fantasies, Op. 52 are a triptych, confronting death, resurrection and eternal life. No. 2 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme I particularly like. Schmeding has a natural way with these large diffuse scores, fully getting to grips with their cumulative power, building the tension throughout from hushed composure to thrilling magisterial climaxes. Try Wie schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern Op. 40 Nr. 1, to sample the enormous dynamic breadth of the Sauer organ (1908) in the Erlöserkirche, Bad Homburg. I find its more colourful range preferable to the instruments used by Balázs Szabó (MDG) and Gerhard Weinberger (CPO). Occupying Reger around the same time as the Chorale Fantasies was the Sonata in F sharp minor Op. 33, here played on the organ of Berlin Cathedral. I must admit that although I know most of the composer’s organ music, this work I hadn’t encountered before, and I did find it a harder nut to crack. Darker and densely textured, Schmeding manages to penetrate its complexities and reveal its hidden glories. The concluding Passacaglia is particularly impressive.

In total contrast to these monumental edifices, we have the 52 Chorale Preludes Op. 67. Divided into three books and spread over three discs, these ‘easy to play’ works, modest in form, offer some balm to the ears, and present more than a passing nod to JSB. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (Out of the depths I call to thee) is serene and tranquil, yet its brevity doesn’t preclude spiritual depth. Also subdued is Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ, who art my life). Yet, not everything is kept under wraps. Martin Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) employs some impressively rich bass pedal notes. Jauchz, Erd’ und Himmel, juble! (Rejoice, earth and heaven) is truly magnificent, bringing Book 1 to an end in a blaze of glory with its rhythmically buoyant triplets. Schmeding uses two organs to showcase these pieces, a Walcker organ (1900) for Books 1 and 3 and a Sauer (1904) for Book 2. It’s an inspired choice in both cases, and his deft skill in choosing registrations with some ravishing colours adds to the allure of these captivating scores.

Ten years separate the two Suites. The Suite No 1 in E minor Op. 16 dates from the beginning of his compositional career in 1895. Apparently Brahms admired it. A lengthy work of 47 minutes, in four movements, it’s cast in symphonic proportions, crowned by a mighty Passacaglia. His later Suite No 2 in G minor Op. 92, dating from 1905-6, is in seven movements, and only half the length of its predecessor. At its centre is a serenely eloquent Romanze, where Schmeding achieves some spectacular colours from the Walcker organ (1900) of the Evangelische Kirche Essen-Werden. The concluding Fuge captures the organ’s full dynamic potential. The Op. 16 Suite is performed on an earlier Walcker of 1884 in St. Anne's Church in Annaberg-Buchholz. Both Suites are delivered with authority and conviction.

Everything about this release shouts quality. The presentation is luxurious by any standards, with the SACDs, in card sleeves, housed in a handsome, sturdy, box-style case. The accompanying 172 page book is very well set out, with German text opposite English. Lavishly illustrated, throughout, there’s a wealth of finely reproduced photographs, many of which I’d never seen before. Informative and comprehensive notes on each of the volumes, provided by Martin Schmeding himself, are followed by details and specifications of the organ used on that particular occasion. Plates of the individual organs are reproduced in the book, allowing the reader an opportunity to savour the architectural splendour of these impressive instruments. The final disc features Martin Schmeding in conversation in German with Mirjam Wiesemann, co-founder of Cybèle.

This is an impressive achievement by any standards.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Dominy Clements (Recording of the Month)

Complete track-listing:
Vol. 1 [81:30]
Fantasy and Fugue on BACH, Op 46 (1900) [21:03]
Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor, WoO IV / 6 (1899) [9:29]
Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, Op 57 (1901) [25:23]
Second Sonata in D minor, Op 60 (1901) [25:35]

Vol. 2 [62:35]
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, Op 127 (1913) [30:18]
Nine Pieces, Op 129 (1913) [32:16]

Vol. 3 [71:03]
Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, Op 135b (1915/1916) [16:59]
Seven Pieces, Op 145 (1915/1916) [54:03]

Vol. 4 [66:39]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott' op. 27 (1898) [14:49]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Freu' dich sehr, o meine Seele!' op. 30 (1898) [18:57]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Wie schön leucht't uns der Morgenstern' op. 40 Nr. 1 (1899) [18:42]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn!' op. 40 Nr. 2 (1899) [14:09]

Vol. 5 [68:47]
Kompositionen für Orgel (13 Choralvorspiele) op. 79b (1901-1904) [20:55]
Zwölf Stücke für Orgel op. 59, Heft 1 und 2 (1901) [48:10]

Vol. 6 [79:31]
Drei Stücke für Orgel op. 7 (1892) [27:01]
Präludium und Fuge fis-Moll op. 82 Bd. IV Nr. 1 u. 2 (1912) [5:39]
Suite in e-Moll op. 16 ('Den Manen Johann Sebastian Bachs') (1895) [46:49]

Vol. 7 [68:51]
Zweiundfünfzig leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen für Orgel op. 67, Heft 1 (1901-1902) [36:47]
Vier Präludien und Fugen op. 85 (1904) [29:40]
Postludium d-Moll WoO IV/12 (1904) [2:22]

Vol. 8 [73:49]
Zweiundfünfzig leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen für Orgel op. 67, Heft 3 (1901-1902) [36:54]
Suite g-Moll für Orgel op. 92 (1905-1906) [28:48]
Variationen und Fuge über 'Heil, unserm König Heil!' für Orgel WoO IV/7 (1901) [8:06]

Vol. 9 [63:41]
Sechs Trios für Orgel op. 47 (1900) [17:56]
Zwölf Stücke für Orgel op. 80, Heft 1 (1902/1904) [24:09]
Zwölf Stücke für Orgel op. 80, Heft 2 (1904) [21:35]

Vol. 10 [79:23]
Zweiundfünfzig leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen für Orgel op. 67, Heft 2 (1900-1902) [38:46]
Fünf leicht ausführbare Präludien und Fugen für Orgel op. 56 (1903) [40:35]

Vol. 11 [64:36]
Zwölf Stücke für Orgel op. 65, Heft 1 (1902) [33:46]
Zwölf Stücke für Orgel op. 65, Heft 2 (1902) [30:48]

Vol. 12 [65:31]
Zehn Stücke für Orgel op. 69, Heft 1 (1902-1903) [18:37]
Zehn Stücke für Orgel op. 69, Heft 2 (1902-1903) [21:06]
Sechs Choralvorspiele für Orgel (1893-1909) [17:42]
Präludium und Fuge in gis-Moll WoO IV/15 (1906) [8:05]

Vol. 13 [64:11]
Dreißig kleine Choralvorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten Chorälen für Orgel op. 135a (1914) [46:52]
Romanze in a-Moll für Orgel WoO IV/11 (1904) [3:57]
Präludium in c-moll für Orgel WoO VIII/6 (1900) [1:00]
Fuge in c-Moll für Orgel WoO IV/8 (1901) [2:54]
Altniederländisches Dankgebet für Orgel WoO IV/17 (1915) [2:59]
Präludium und Fuge in d-Moll WoO IV/10 (1902) [6:26]

Vol. 14 [73:29]
Sonate in fis-Moll für Orgel op. 33 (1899) [23:23]
Monologe ('Zwölf Stücke') für Orgel op. 63, Heft 1 (1902) [24:50]
Monologe ('Zwölf Stücke') für Orgel op. 63, Heft 2 (1902) [25:15]

Vol. 15 [58:28]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Alle Menschen müssen sterben' op. 52 Nr. 1 (1900) [15:36]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' op. 52 Nr. 2 (1900) [20:56]
Phantasie für Orgel über den Choral 'Halleluja! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud'!' op. 52 Nr. 3 (1900) [17:17]
Liebestraum - Lyrisches Tonstück für Klavier (oder Orgel) WoO III/7 (1898) [4:38]

Vol. 16 [71:37]
Phantasie und Fuge in c-Moll op. 29 (1898) [14:47]
Monologe (‘Zwölf Stücke’) für Orgel op. 63, Heft 3 (1902) [23:18]
Variationen und Fuge über ein Originalthema in fis-Moll für Orgel op. 73 (1903) [33:31]

Vol. 17 [50:11]
Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Martin Schmeding

Recording dates and locations:

Vols. 1-3: 2014, Lutherkirche, Wiesbaden
Vol. 4: March 2015, Bad Homburg
Vol. 6: June 2015, Annaberg-Bucholz
Vols. 7-9: May 2015, Essen-Werden
Vols. 9-10: May 2015, Leipzig
Vols. 11-12: September 2015, Chemnitz.
Vol. 13: September 2015, Niederlausitz, Finsterwalde and Stift Neuzelle.
Vol. 14: September 2016, Berlin
Vols. 15-16: May 2016, Leipzig.



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