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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Clarinet Quintet in A major, Op 146 (1916) {37:39]
String Sextet in F major, Op 118 [1910] [36:45]
Thorsten Johanns (clarinet), Roland Glassl (viola), Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Diogenes Quartett
rec. 2018/2019, Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, Munich, Germany
CPO 555 340-2 [74:24]

Yet more Reger. I was both surprised and delighted to find a revealing family photograph of the composer with his wife Elsa and two stepdaughters in the booklet accompanying this new disc. Its vividness is remarkable– it could have been taken last week rather than in 1915. The four of them sit around a tiny table in their conservatory at Jena. Reger himself is seated at the right; he wears an expression of mild irritation – revealing a determination perhaps not to undermine the image of himself as an irascible curmudgeon, one which has survived the last century. Elsa’s mien seems to be an exact reflection of her husband’s, but the picture really comes to life with the elfin, mischievous grins of the little girls, one of whom, Lotti, is clutching the family dog. This vision affords us a glimpse into a mundane family domesticity which seems quite at odds with the inherited reputation of an individual whose aloofness has seemingly been preserved within the dots and barlines of his music. In my view this picture is itself worth the price of entry; in any case the Diogenes Quartet’s - and their guests’- accounts of two of Reger’s late masterpieces are sufficiently fine to warrant a strong recommendation.

The Clarinet Quintet was Reger’s last work before he succumbed prematurely to a fatal heart attack, the inevitable consequence result of a lifetime’s overindulgence in fags, booze and rich food. I would be most surprised to find a work of Reger’s that has been recorded more often – I can identify 19 (!) different accounts, three by Karl Leister alone and it is his 1972 DG reading with the Drolc Quartet (still available as a three disc download with the string quartets on 477 5518) which has been my first port of call over the last decade; more difficult to source is Sabine Meyer’s beautifully balanced 2000 recording with the Wiener Streichsextett on what was EMI (555 602-2) - it is similarly coupled with the Sextet. Thorsten Johanns and the Diogenes Quartet invest the work with a tad more breadth than either of those two alternatives, their unhurried progress perhaps effecting an autumnal haze which is implied in the notes but surely imaginary, given the abruptness of the composer’s demise. From the start Johanns’ clarinet weaves its way between elaborate string lines and dense counterpoint as if somehow disconnected from the whole edifice – the effect is as attractive as it is arresting. Reger’s writing for the strings necessitates occasional stridency, but the first movement as a whole is one of his mellower creations. This is delightful, intriguing music – rich in the ochres, russets and sepia which dominate the Max Klinger painting on the booklet cover, but hardly elegiac. One is also less aware of a Brahmsian influence – this is decidedly a more contemporary conception of Reger than is the case in the two accounts mentioned above. This ensemble find some alluring tonal blends among the three-against two pulses of the bittersweet Vivace, whose scherzo credentials only seem obvious in its second half. The Largo is warm and wistful notwithstanding a couple of ardent climaxes and a knottier section at its centre; CPO’s recording is never too soft-focused to prevent Reger’s contrapuntal detail to emerge with real clarity. The lovely solo string lines are projected with something approaching love. And while these players emphasise the contrasts between the Poco allegretto finale’s skilfully worked variations, the cogency of the whole is both palpable and reassuring. This is an understated yet coherent account which I enjoyed very much- one to which I shall doubtless return.

The Diogenes Quartet are joined by violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang for the F major Sextet which Reger completed in 1910. For me this piece as a complete entity is one of Reger’s most impenetrable. The thickness of the textures at the outset provide a representative sample of what’s to come – passages of unease and restlessness melt into short-lived moments of reflection which in turn evaporate into dense music of jagged stridency. That’s not to say there aren’t oases of repose – take the rapt passage at 3:42 in the opening Allegro energico – at the very point the listener feels they have something to hold onto, it’s gone. As the Reger expert Jürgen Schaarwächter cheerfully admits in his note the Sextet is ultimately one of the toughest nuts to crack in the entire canon, and even the most fervent of his admirers would agree that one has little chance of grasping it on first hearing. Yet one is regularly drawn back to try, not least by his undeniable craftsmanship, the elegance of his part-writing and the intriguing chromaticism that ensues. There is an underlying charm peeking through the undergrowth of the Vivace scherzo which too seldom rears its head. The slow movement is the obvious high point; marked Largo con gran expressivo it radiates an austere beauty in a twelve minute span which conveys a nocturnal transcendence not unlike that of a more famous sextet composed a decade or so earlier: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. One cannot fault either the playing or the sound here – both seem more rounded and warmly communicative than that on the old EMI disc mentioned above. In following it the Allegro commodo finale has a livelier, more assertive countenance than all three preceding panels but after the slow movement other listeners may share the view that it represents something of an anti-climax.

In any case, one can scarcely imagine either of these two works being better prepared or performed; the Diogenes Quartet and their guests play their collective hearts out for the Reger cause. The CPO engineers have captured them in ideal sound – the disc projects a warmth that never seems over-lush and allows the detail, a sine qua non in getting to grips with this composer especially, to emerge unscathed. Regerophiles need not hesitate.

Richard Hanlon

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