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Rogner Leipzig GEN22742
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Heinz Rögner (conductor)
MDR-Sinfonieorchester & MDR-Kammerphilharmonie
rec. 1994-2001, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Germany
GENUIN GEN22742 [4 CDs: 262:09]

Recent years have seen opportunities for collectors to reassess the recorded legacy of conductors whose careers were defined by their work behind the Iron Curtain. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall major artists such as Kurt Masur or Kurt Sanderling were well-known to collectors with the likes of Herbert Kegel and Otmar Suitner recognised but less familiar. Certainly the latter two conductors now have discographies and a status that their superb musicianship deserved. But further back in the musical shadows lie other conductors such as Heinz Rögner (1929-2001). Until 2014 I was only aware of Rögner’s name as conductor on a few fairly disparate Berlin Classics discs of repertoire ranging from Eisler to Kurt Weill and Reger. That is not to say he was not active in the studio – his discography was quite wide, but it was only in 2014 with the release of a cycle of Bruckner Symphonies on Brilliant Classics with Rögner conducting Nos. 4-9 that I appreciated just what a fine musician he was (review). Brilliant followed this up with a similar set of the Bruckner Masses but that apart there have been relatively few releases devoted to Rögner’s art.

Which makes this four CD set from Genuin all the more welcome. Rögner was principal conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra for twenty years from 1973 but the performances given here are all with MDR Sinfonieorchester and Kammerphilharmonie – formerly known as the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. These are live concert recordings made between 1994-2001. Although the liner does not say as much I assume the tapes are the original German Radio masters – yes there is some audience noise audible during the playing as well as applause retained at the end but overall the actual engineering and orchestral balance is excellent. In brief, from first to last this set is a delight with unaffected yet deeply affectionate and considered music-making. I could only find a single video of Rögner’s conducting – a 1977 Missa Solemnis – which has poor video and sound quality but the pictures show Rögner to be exactly the type of conductor I was expecting (hoping!) to see; unmannered, clear and precise and at the service of the music and most importantly the performers. To be honest, that did not come as a surprise because that is exactly how the music on these four disc sounds as well – no ‘look at me’ ego positioned between the music and the audience with a simplicity and rightness that is an elusive quality only the great musicians possess.

There are other common qualities across these four discs as well. Since the Berlin Wall came down only some five years before the first of these recordings were made it should come as no surprise that there is an aural legacy of Eastern European performing traditions in the actual sound the Leipzig orchestras make which I enjoy very much. Rugged string bass lines, plangent clarinets, rich oboes and mellow horns are just some of the sonic markers that place the orchestra in Eastern Europe. Disc one combines Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt [Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage] Overture Op.27 with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Both performances encapsulate and epitomise the qualities of the playing and interpretation throughout the set. The music unfurls with a natural unforced inevitability. This transcends any polarised compartmentalising of “old school” or “historically informed” performance. Instead, the simple and timeless virtues of fine musicianship, sensitive playing and clarity of musical vision are evident. Indeed, I am not sure if I have ever heard the opening movement of the Beethoven capture so effectively the “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside”. Likewise the following “Scene by the brook” is serene nature-painting of the highest order with the woodwind solos taken with real character. By the standards of many HIP performances the “Merry gathering of country folk” is more gentile ball than rustic dance and Rögner does not take the repeat in this movement which does make it feel rather short. The following “Storm” is effectively pictorial with rumbling bass lines and pleasingly hard-sticked timpani which then dissolves ever-miraculously into a radiant “Shepherd’s Song”. This is exactly the kind of movement that Rögner does so very well. Everything unfurls with a kind of organic rightness that is a joy to hear. For sure the live performance brings little blips of ensemble and intonation and the Leipzig orchestra does not pretend to be the most glamorous in the world but caught in the moment, this epitomises how music can communicate and engage. I found this to be a genuinely moving and deeply human performance.

Disc two stays with core Germanic repertoire; Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra of the same composer’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet No.14. The symphony is sometimes referred to as the first Romantic symphony and certainly Rögner find a restless searching quality at the opening that is more Romantic than Classical. Perhaps I was looking for linkage, but I was struck by the way the opening has a proto-Brucknerian quality in the repeating string figurations. Rögner is so very good at creating long singing/lyrical lines and his Leipzig wind principals phrase quite beautifully. With the catalogue awash with great and famous versions it would be foolish to name one performance as better than all the rest but, as with the preceding Beethoven, this is a compelling and quite lovely performance from first to last. Mahler’s arrangement of Death and the Maiden is more a performing edition for string orchestra than a true arrangement. In the sense that Mahler judiciously uses the double basses to reinforce the bottom line as well as indicating muting of the strings and occasional differentiating between section and solo players. The result – in a fine performance – is again to underline the Romantic credentials of the work. Unlike the accompanying symphony, the catalogue is not overly full of competing versions. Moreover, the versions that do exist are quite often played by small chamber orchestras [I have not heard the version by the LSO on their own live label or the RPO on Telarc] that are in effect double or triple quartets. My sense is that to maximise the effects that Mahler sought this needs to be played by a full symphonic string section as here. In turn this brings perils of execution which this live performance does not wholly surmount or avoid but the benefit of a large body of strings is evident. The one caveat I do have is that the engineering, which in the full orchestral works is multi-miked but warm, here is closer and a tad harsher. Rögner’s interpretation is predictably clear headed – powerful and dramatic but not impetuous. Perhaps that is the advantage a string quartet can have – an emotional volatility that is hard to recreate with forty players rather than four. But again, I enjoy the tangible sense of these Leipzig players really digging into their instruments – this is exciting music for a string player to play and that sense is well-conveyed. The third movement is again rather steady by modern standards but the trade-off is a beautifully lilting trio. But the finale in turn benefits from not being overly driven but the extra bass instruments adding a turbulent power. Again the Leipzig upper strings are technically very fine if without the tonal sheen of the very greatest ensembles – Rögner’s care at phrasing the singing counter melodies is a little masterclass in itself.

Disc 3 combines Reger with Ravel. Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op 132 is a skilled and sophisticated work which responds well to Rögner’s sensitive balancing of the complex orchestration. Reger builds a work from the naively simple Mozart theme drawn from the Piano Sonata No. 11 in A majorK.331. This probably remains Reger’s best-known work and certainly it exists in several recorded performances although I cannot remember seeing it programmed in UK concert halls in recent years. Alongside the eight variations Reger writes a concluding fugue that lasts a third of the entire work’s thirty three minute duration. In lesser hands than Rögner this can seem rather turgidly scored and overwritten. The characterful wind playing and the unaffected beauty of the playing makes as good a case for this work as I can imagine hearing. I am not sure this would ever be a favourite work of mine but Rögner’s performance is wholly effective. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, although written only five years after the Reger, occupies a completely different aural and aesthetic world. If Reger is paying homage to Bach and Brahms and the other Germanic Masters then Ravel celebrates the clarity and precision of his French musical ancestor. Rögner’s discography does contain some French repertoire, but certainly this is interesting for the listener to hear him in repertoire away from the Germanic core. All of Rögner’s virtues of song-like phrasing, sensitive balancing and flowing tempi are evident here. However, the quite close sound and the minor fluffs of live performance allied to the rich bed of sound the MDR Kammerphilharmonie makes means that the poised crystalline quality of the music is lessened. As such this performance is certainly beautiful and worth hearing in the context of this set, but it is not the finest version you can hear. Recorded in 2001 – some eight months before Rögner’s death at the age of 71, this is the last example of his craft given here.

The final disc returns, very appropriately, to Bruckner and a Symphony in No.6 that stood out in his partial cycle mentioned above for exactly the same qualities repeated here. Indeed, listening to Rögner in Bruckner makes it clear how his general musical principles are so well suited to this composer. The clarity of balance, the preference for song-like lines and phrasing, the use of flowing tempi come together to great effect. As in the studio recording, this is not grand rhetorical Bruckner with the brass unleashed at every opportunity. Indeed, one of the main features is just how much of the inner detail often lost in a blaze of brazen glory is audible. Instead, Rögner is careful to hold the climactic points in reserve. A case in point is the climax to the slow movement when suddenly the trumpet line pierces the texture like the sun through clouds to great emotional, almost theatrical effect. This slow movement is a particular performing highlight not just of the symphony but the set as a whole. As usual, Rögner’s timing sits at the faster end – but not ridiculously so – of the standard range but he achieves a wonderful sense of journey from sorrow and doubt to resolution. As elsewhere in the set, the playing of the MDR Sinfonieorchester is both beautiful and committed. Yes there are a couple of very minor fluffs and imperfections but overall this is a performance of great stature.

The set is completed with what is surely one of the least likely couplings to a Bruckner symphony ever; Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Much as I love Gershwin, I did have to take a break between the symphony and this work. At first glance this would seem to be unlikely Rögner repertoire but perhaps the performance date of Christmas Day 1997 explains the choice. In fact this turns out to be a really impressive performance! Radio Orchestras around the world tend to be the work-horses of their organisations adept at playing a wide range of repertoire and styles. Certainly the MDR Kammerphilharmonie play to the manner born with swaggering lead brass lines, swooning characterful saxophones and strings who would do Hollywood proud. Rögner is nonchalant rather than driven but he knows how to build a climax – the “home blues” section is perfectly paced. Again praise to Rögner – and the Leipzig radio engineers – for achieving a balance that allows so much inner detail to register. Rögner does not wholly solve the sectional nature of the work or the way it feels as if it should finish about three times, but this is certainly a joyful and celebratory performance as befits the concert/day at which it was performed. Initially, I wondered if it was a sensible work to finish this set given Rögner’s fame for performing central Germanic repertoire but in fact the smiling benevolence of the performance seems a wholly appropriate legacy.

All in all this has been a very enjoyable and rewarding traversal of Heinz Rögner’s recorded legacy. A major – and as yet unmentioned – part of this pleasure has been reading about the conductor in the excellent booklet. This is a substantial – 80 page – liner in German and English only. The music played is not mentioned at all. Instead, alongside an excellent biographical note by Dirk Stöve (who was responsible for the planning, repertoire choices and production of this set) and many interesting photographs, we have a series of extended and fascinating ‘reminiscences’ about Rögner from those who knew him well. These include figures such as Karl Suske (leader of the Staatskapelle Berlin), conductor Max Pommer, conductor Micheal Sanderling (who was principal cellist in the Berlin RSO for Rögner) as well as his daughter Susanne amongst others. From these essays emerge a portrait of a conductor greatly admired, respected and liked as both a musician and a man. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that I feel that I can hear this sense of collaborative, respectful music-making in these performances.

I would like to think that many more performances are held in the Leipzig Radio archives as this set is a worthy tribute to an exceptionally fine but overlooked conductor. An extended series of Rögner performances from the archives would be warmly welcomed.

Nick Barnard
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt Op 27 (1828) [14:37]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 6 in F major Op 68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808) [44:45]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No 7 in B minor D.759 ‘Unfinished’* (1822) [28:52]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr. Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
String Quartet No 14 in D minor Op Posth D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’* (1824) [44:30]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Variationen und Fuge über ein Thema von Mozart Op 132* (1914) [36:50]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) [17:56]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 6 in A major WAB 106* (1881) [54:39]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1938) [19:47]
MDR Sinfonieorchester *, Kammerphilharmonie

Recorded: 12 June 1994 (Bruckner), 25 August 1995 (‘Unfinished’), 21-22 September 1997 (‘Death & the Maiden’), 25 December 1997 (Gershwin), 20 October 1998 (Reger), 20 February 1999 (Mendelssohn), 28 February 1999 (Beethoven), 8 April 2001 (Ravel)

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