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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Piano Quintet in C minor, Op 64 (1903) [29:04]
Piano Trio in E minor, Op 102 (1908) [35:29]
Wolfram Lorenzen (piano)
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
rec. 1997, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, Germany
TROUBADISC TRO-CD01414 [64:33]

I’ve been listening to a lot of Reger in the last month; in an attempt to mitigate for the cancellation of Summer 2020 I purchased Fugue State Films 6 x DVD, 15 hour Regerfest Maximum Reger (review) and have found it unfeasibly rewarding and remarkably digestible given the damning-him-with-faint-praise antipathy invested in this composer by myriad pundits and naysayers across countless generations. As I was growing into classical music during the 1970s many critics were swift to mark him out as a no-go area, sufficiently so to challenge me to sample the heady delights of his piano concerto (Rudolf Serkin) and a couple of the string quartets (played by the Drolc Quartet on a long deleted DG album acquired, like many highlights from the first half of my life, second-hand from Gibb’s Bookshop in Manchester). I suppose that my ability to whistle along to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op 9 (a lifetime favourite interpreted in a most unwelcome party-piece) meant that Reger’s chromatic density held few fears for me, at least compared to his reputation for prolixity.

Of the two works on this issue (originally recorded in 1997) the E minor Piano Trio has been relatively well- served on disc; my only previous encounter with the C minor Piano Quintet involved a 1960 live recording from the unlikely combo of Sviastoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet on a release whose whose unforgiving sonics at least hinted at a fine work. In a detailed, entertaining and neatly translated booklet note, Suzanne Popp provides some succinct yet entertaining contemporary summaries of this 1903 piece: Grieg (also a client of Reger’s publishers C F Peters) described it variously as ‘plum pudding’ and ‘leaden constipation’; an anonymous listener coined the phrase ‘torture chamber music’ while Peters’ owner implored the composer to ‘reduce the number of dynamics by at least a quarter…..’ as they were not ‘….used by the classical masters in anything like such number.’ While it’s probably stretching the truth to claim that listeners will be humming the profuse melodic ideas that inhabit the opening Con moto agitato for weeks on end, the pianist Wolfram Lorenzen and the members of the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet at least give it life; the twists and turns of the music may well be difficult to navigate but these players do not hang around and they are well recorded – what might be perceived as mild dryness suits Reger’s dense textures perfectly and enables the listener to make some sense of the composer’s ornate part-writing. Given that the Schoenberg piece I referred to above only emerged in 1906 one can only imagine how incomprehensible this music must have seemed to audiences three years earlier, but our more sophisticated ears (and the benefits of immediate repetition) will discover in due course a fervent, unsettling but ultimately rewarding twelve and a half minute span. How to follow it? How about an acerbic, tricksy Vivace scherzo? Something of a palate-cleanser, it’s a tart lemon sorbet with a hint of ginger which lasts but 150 seconds but compared to the preceding panel it’s as light as air. The slow movement (marked Lento addolorato e con gran affetto) seems more of its time both sonically and emotionally; ghostly, inscruatble piano motifs are developed and picked apart by the strings. The delightful idea that emerges at 2:57 is as direct as Reger gets in this work. The work reaches its destination in a concluding Allegro risoluto which conveys more charm the better acquainted with it one becomes. But be warned: of all Reger’s major chamber works (by now I’m on at least nodding terms with most of them) I’m pretty sure this is the most challenging. Like all his music it requires patience and perseverance -I found the quintet mysteriously compelling and addictive in this spirited, sympathetic account and certainly not tortuous.

Most recorded accounts of the E minor Piano Trio exceed 40 minutes; here Lorenzen, Eggebrecht and Kupsa get round in 35. Perhaps mobility is the key with Reger – it’s less a question of glossing over the nuance and detail of the thick harmony and counterpoint than allowing the work in toto to find its legs and in consequence its beating heart. The trio follows a parallel course to the quintet, a long Allegro first movement, a brief scherzo, preceding a Largo and a finale of equal, middling dimensions. The initial, rather melancholy violin motif which kicks off the opener is thrice repeated and forms an identifiable reference point for the rest of the movement, if not the entire work. A feature of Reger’s chamber music is an apparent aversion to the use of rests; players rarely seem to get a break but there are fleeting solo figures in this opening movement which reveal three individual performers who really care about this music. There is a rapt episode at 7:50 which offers each a little respite. Violinist Renate Eggebrecht adds her customary insight and lightness of touch, she is ably supported by Lorenzen’s characterful, generous pianism and Kupsa’s subtle playing – a little too subtle in this reading perhaps as his contribution occasionally seems overwhelmed by his co-partners. Elfin pizzicati and featherlight piano touches dominate the oddly Mendelssohnian Scherzo, whilst its central section is contrastingly romantic – its arch string melodies get close to salon music. The Largo evolves most organically from the sombre piano hymn at its outset; its calm determination is threatened here and there by the odd histrionic episode. The instrumental contrasts are more clearly defined here enabling Friedemann Kupsa’s graceful cello to come more to the fore. This slow movement is frequently spare and delicately beautiful – one of my favourite Reger spans. And don’t be fooled by the uncharacteristically four-square intro to the Allegro con moto finale; it’s a motif which recurs throughout the movement but after its initial statement it yields to more mercurial material as strange mini-fugues emerge from nowhere and melt into lush, neo-romantic fragments. There is a palpable sense of ‘pass the parcel’ between these three players, a spirit that exudes a spirit of competition as well as collaboration.

Reger completists will want this disc for the quintet – its only competitor in modern sound seems to be another recent release from Kolja Lessing and the Parnassus Akademie on Etcetera (I haven’t heard this but my colleague Stephen Barber has - review). In any case this well-recorded issue is nicely presented and will amply reward those listeners willing to give Reger the time of day, especially those who recognise that the rewards for concentrating on this music tend to arrive in instalments; in my view this is never a bad thing.

Richard Hanlon

Renate Eggebrecht, Eri Nakagawa (violins); Kelvin Hawthorne (viola); Friedemann Kupsa (cello)

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