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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Piano Quintet Op. 64 (1903) [33:40]
Cello Sonata No. 4 Op. 116 (1910) [33:41]
Kolja Lessing (piano)
Michael Gro▀ (cello)
Parnassus Akademie
rec. 2016, Church of Leut, CC Maasmechelen, Belgium
ETCETERA KTC1562 [67:21]

It seems to be the fate of Reger to be always on the fringes of the repertoire and never to become properly established within it. Yet a composer who won the praise of Schoenberg and Hindemith cannot simply be written off. Here we have two works which bring out both his strengths and his weaknesses.

The piano quintet is a relatively early work, despite its high opus number. He had high hopes for it and the first performance, in which he himself played the piano part, was well received, but then the work languished. It was not performed again in his lifetime and was revived only in the 1920s by Hindemith with his Amar Quartet and, in one performance, Walter Gieseking as the pianist. It is a large-scale work in four movements, of which the first is much the longest. This first movement immediately shows the problem with Reger: there are several themes, but they are all rather like one another, none is really distinctive, and the rich texture and constant modulation make it difficult to articulate the different parts of the movement. Compare this with Brahms’s piano quintet, which had a difficult gestation but which ended up with clear and memorable themes and strong contrasts. Reger’s second movement is a brief stamping dance, quite attractive, and which disappears in a whisper. The slow movement begins with an expressive piano solo but the thick writing returns and the finale is a slightly lumbering dance. It is a good work, but set against the great piano quintets by, for example, Schumann, Brahms and Franck, it does not really measure up to them.

The coupling is a later work, the fourth of Reger’s cello sonatas. I liked this much more, partly because the use of only two instruments prevented Reger from thickening out his writing as much as usual, and partly because there is more variety. Again, there are four movements. The cello writing in the first is really eloquent and questing. The scherzo is playful and lightfooted with an interesting use of pizzicato in the cello. The slow movement is meditative and ecstatic – I even found myself thinking of Messaien’s Louange Ó l’╔ternitÚ de JÚsus from the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The finale is light-hearted though with some Brahmsian echoes.

The performances here are dedicated and full-blooded and the pianist, Kolja Lessing, also wrote the sleevenote, which makes great claims for these works. I admire her enthusiasm and that of her colleagues, which is certainly what these works need, even though I cannot wholly share it. It is a shame that there is nothing in the booklet about the performers. The recording is excellent.

There is little competition for the piano quintet, though there is a recording in the Troubadisc series of Reger piano chamber music coupled with the E minor trio Op. 102. For the cello sonata, the obvious alternative is the complete set of Reger cello sonatas by Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker on Hyperion. However, if this coupling attracts, it will reward the adventurous.

Stephen Barber

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