Many years ago my friend and Gramophone colleague Andrew Achenbach suggested a ploy for tracking me down should I ever fall out of favour with the law: send them round to London’s major classical CD stores and my fingerprints will almost certainly be the only ones in the Reger racks. An affectionate thought and not too far from the truth, at least so far as my devotion to Reger’s music is concerned.
Will Fraser’s ‘Maximum Reger’, for me an answer to a prayer, is an obvious labour of love and I think it fair to say that in musical terms no labour is more deserving of love than Reger’s life and work. One hundred and one years after his death he still remains a comparative enigma, celebrated as a genius by Hindemith and Schoenberg, a musical colossus whose output of near-on 1000 pieces deserves, even invites, the closest scrutiny. Speaking personally, I can rarely resist the waves of modulation that characterise his best work, like an ecstatic hippo rolling in mud, the way he ferries me from key to key with surprises virtually by the bar; but I appreciate that others would rather not be surprised, even disorientated, in quite the same way.
A possible clue for his continuing lack of wider appeal may lie with the beautiful Aria from the Suite for violin and piano, Op 103 (included both in full and in the last part of the set’s three-part documentary ‘Max Reger: The Last Giant’). It opens simply, in the manner of Bach’s celebrated Air from the D major Suite, but then so does Reynaldo Hahn’s exquisite mélodie ‘À Chloris’. The difference between the two is in the subsequent degree of musical discursiveness that Reger allows himself and that Hahn avoids. Now I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. Reger’s Aria is infused with a spirit of deep emotion, whereas Hahn keeps his powder dry. Different universes, I suppose.
Time and again throughout this set works are illustrated, most of them inhabiting the realms of organ or chamber music, that reach out with a degree of modulatory boldness unknown to man until Reger’s arrival on this planet. Superb organists such as Bernhard Buttmann, Bernhard Haas and Graham Barber present some of Reger’s finest pieces (played on different instruments), Haas and Barber helping to explain their appeal and inherent difficulties – conceptually rather than technically – while the pioneering pianist/conductor Ira Levin further explains elements of the Reger phenomenon, presenting his own orchestration of the Bach Variations, which many consider to be Reger’s crowning achievement in the genre, in alternation with variations from the piano original.
Nervous and compulsive, sensitive to criticism and addicted to drink as he was, Reger nonetheless managed to carry on regardless. Levin illustrates his near bipolar stylistic extremes by playing part of the Serenade’s entrancing first movement then switching to some of Reger’s most dissonant organ-writing. Haas reminds us that Reger anticipates Strauss’s terrifying Elektra chord (many years before it was composed) while throughout the documentary Reger expert Professor Susanne Popp of the Reger Institute draws on key elements of the composer’s biography, his love of family (he had two adopted daughters), his complex personality and the way he related to those around him. The issue of Reger and ‘the symphony’ raises more interesting questions: he didn’t write one – or did he? The Symphonic Prologue, Sinfonietta, Serenade, Sextet and other large-scale works could be considered symphonies with diverted agendas.
The music selections presented by ‘Maximum Reger’ number among their contents such masterpieces as the Böcklin Suite, the String Sextet, two of the string quartets and numerous songs (in dedicated interpretations by Frauke May), performed by many gifted artists, the likes of Markus Becker (whose excellent set of the complete piano music is now available at super-budget price from NCA), cellist Julius Berger, violinist Sayaka Shoji and the Aris Quartet, whose leader Katharina Wildermuth is especially compelling. All these players and many more seem dedicated to promoting Reger’s musical cause. It’s just a shame there wasn’t room for the Op 109 Quartet, the Ballet Suite, Hiller and Mozart Variations or Suite in the Olden Style. Whenever I’m on a Reger crusade, these are the works I tend to use to help fight his cause. Still, there’s more than enough great music to be getting on with, much of it out of the top drawer, and you can always take my prompt for extra repertoire with various bargain CDs or box-sets (Warner’s eight-CD ‘Centenary Collection’ – 12/16 – for example).
Those of us who love Reger are disillusioned virtually on a daily basis by watching otherwise friendly eyes glaze over whenever his name is mentioned. The sad fact is that any composing genius who fights shy of the avant-garde while remaining eminently listenable is bound to suffer slings and arrows from conservatives on the one hand and modernists on the other. But Max Reger was far too original to fit into either camp, which is why I strongly recommend you jump straight in with ‘Maximum Reger’.