Reger wrote some 300 songs during the course of his career, very few of which form part of the regular repertory. Sophie Bevan and Malcolm Martineau offer a fine selection presented in chronological order, with the exception of the 1905 ‘Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe!’ (more a chorale prelude for voice and piano than a song), which is placed at the end to form a grand finale. In terms of content, the disc is revelatory. As one might expect from a composer who saw no conflict between post-Wagnerian methods and back-to-Bach classicism, Reger casts his stylistic net wide, with fascinating results.
Brahmsian folksongs such as ‘Mausefangen’ rub shoulders with exercises in extreme chromaticism (‘Unbegehrt’, for example) that rival early Schoenberg. Reger’s fondness for Wolf is very apparent in ‘Viola d’amour’, though songs such as ‘In einem Rosengärtelein’ are effectively early music transcriptions, their austere beauty pre-empting those of Dallapiccola. He was primarily drawn to contemporary poetry – plenty of Richard Dehmel, for instance – and occasionally his choice of texts criss-crosses with Strauss. Reger’s ‘Morgen!’, in which melodic and harmonic coherence gradually emerge from an unsettling chromatic fog, won’t eclipse Strauss’s iconic setting, though ‘Träume, träume, du mein süsses Leben’ runs its Straussian counterpart close.
Sadly, however, the disc is less than ideal in terms of performance. The sessions took place in June 2013 and April 2015. We’re not told what was recorded when; but while Martineau’s playing is consistently beautiful, Bevan can be diquietingly variable. Her commitment is never in doubt, and the way she sings off the line as much as the text admirably demonstrates that Reger could be a melodist of the highest order. But the vocal quality itself is inconsistent. She’s at her best in the extracts from the big Op 76 set, where her voice is nicely steady, and she floats high pianissimos in a most beguiling way. Elsewhere, however, her tone lacks lustre, and we’re all too frequently aware of a throb in the sound. ‘Zwischen zwei Nächte’ is very uncomfortable, but ideally needs a Wagnerian. Some of the inequalities elsewhere can’t, I’m afraid, be explained away by arguing she is over-taxed by her material. The disc affords invaluable insights into Reger himself, but one wishes it were better overall.