Magazine article Gramophone

Reger the Organ King

Magazine article Gramophone

Reger the Organ King

Article excerpt

The greatest German organ composer since Bach, Max Reger blazed a trail for modernism - yet his music remains neglected. A century after his death, Gavin Dixon argues for recognition of his entire output, including the chamber and orchestral works

'Reger should, in my opinion, be played often, first of all because he was prolific, and second because he is dead and we don't have any clear ideas about him yet. (I consider him a genius).' Even six years after Max Reger's death, Arnold Schoenberg was still getting to grips with his music. Schoenberg was one of the composer's most ardent champions, but despite his best efforts, and those of Henry Wood, Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin and many others, Reger has since become a peripheral figure. It's a puzzling fate: Reger was a distinctive and influential voice in times of change, the sort of composer that history usually celebrates. He is acknowledged as the greatest German organ composer since Bach, the most sophisticated contrapuntalist of his day, and a key figure in the genesis of modernism and neo-classicism.

A passing acquaintance with Brahms is a good route into Reger's music. Many of Reger's chamber works were written in response to Brahms. His first two clarinet sonatas, Op 49, were composed within three weeks of Reger's introduction to Brahms's Clarinet Sonata No 1 in 1900. And it is no coincidence that Reger also wrote an expansive string sextet and a mellifluous clarinet quintet. Like Brahms, Reger wrote masterfully for every instrument he employed. As cellist Alban Gerhardt, one of Reger's most celebrated interpreters, says of the four cello sonatas: 'He seems to know about that singing quality of the cello, as did Brahms. His relation to Brahms is obvious in the great melodic writing for the instrument.' But as viola player Tabea Zimmermann, another acclaimed Reger interpreter, points out, Reger always has a distinctive voice: 'I see Reger's writing as his own, bringing elements of Brahms's structural thinking to new expressions.'

Reger's music feels freer than Brahms. Melodic ideas are developed intensely, but are rarely constricted by traditional harmonic thinking. At a time when tonal harmony was being stretched to breaking point, Reger was pulling harder than most. His harmonies are usually determined by the melodies, and Reger is happy to move continually between distant chords, using his sweeping lyrical lines to maintain the logic and flow.

Harmonic freedom is often balanced by a strict adherence to traditional forms. Reger stood out among his contemporaries for his use of counterpoint, free and dexterous but closely tied to Baroque idioms. That mastery of counterpoint is most apparent in Reger's organ works. The music of Bach is a clear model, especially for his large-scale concert pieces, some of which are truly epic: his Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op 46, runs to more than 20 minutes, while his Introduction, Fassacaglia and Fugue, Op 127, approaches a half hour. But they're not all gothic edifices: many of Reger's organ works are small and intimate, but just as distinctive, such as the 12 Pieces, Op 65, and the Seven Organ Pieces, Op 145.

Reger's most radical music dates from his early career. In the chamber music of the late 1890s we hear increasingly daring harmonic juxtapositions and complex, contrapuntal textures. 'This music is pretty Expressionist,' says Gerhardt. 'It reminds me of the paintings of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.' The style reached its peak in the Piano Quintet, Op 64 (1901-2), and the Third String Quartet, Op 74 (1903-4). These are challenging but rewarding works, as daring as those of Schoenberg at the time. Take, for example, the first movement of the Third String Quartet, a monumental 20-minute span. Functional tonality is all but abandoned, yet rigorous thematic development and a strict sonata form ensure direction and focus.

In 1901, Reger settled in Munich, planning to establish himself as a pianist and organist, and also hoping to gain recognition as an orchestral composer. …

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