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Hyperion Records

CDA67581/2 - Reger: Cello Sonatas
Rain by the Sea (1881) by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67581/2

Recording details: April 2007
Hannover Congress Centrum, Germany
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2008
Total duration: 136 minutes 56 seconds

'This is a stimulating package, very well played: both artists produce the passionate response demanded of them. Alban Gerhardt has a warm, resonant middle register and Markus Becker is well able to undertake the music's considerable virtuosity' (Gramophone)

'Exceptionally rewarding … it would be difficult to find more persuasive advocates than cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Markus Becker, both of whom are steeped inside the idiom and know exactly how to present the music with cogency and a sure sense of direction. The Four Cello Sonatas provide a fascinating overview of Reger's musical development, moving from the Brahmsian warmth of the First to the highly expressionist and unsettling Fourth. With the aid of excellent sound, Gerhardt and Becker map out this musical journey with wonderful sensitivity … Hyperion's decision to add to this already challenging progamme the Three Unaccompanied Suites of 1914 is fully vindictated by an outstanding performance which once again demonstrates Gerhardt's formidable control of musical line and breathtaking virtuosity' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The playing is outstanding and the two musicians work today beautifully … I can recommend this set highly for both suites and sonatas' (American Record Guide)

'Among the finest cello sonatas since Brahms (and, I might as well add, some of the best solo-cello music since Bach). Another factor is the ferocious difficulty of the instrumental parts … musicians tackling this repertoire have to have the kind of mutual trust that keeps mountaineers alive. It is, in short, a desperately difficult act to bring off, but Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker do so triumphantly. Technically, their playing is up to all the appalling hurdles Reger sets before them, but their musical judgement, too, is shown to advantage: Reger's sudden surges and abrupt changes of mood are accommodated within the longer sweep of each movement' (International Record Review)

'This is music that makes huge technical demands on the players, and the performances are all outstanding; this set represents an important act of rehabilitation for music that is almost unknown' (The Guardian)

'It is surprising that the three unaccompanied solo cello suites by Max Reger are not performed more often as an alternative to those of Bach in whose homage they were written. The German cellist Alban Gerhardt brings out their qualities beautifully on this double CD, with their lyrical preludes, profound adagios and witty, effervescent gigues' (The Times)

'Gerhardt and Becker are fully caught up in the initial whirlwind [Sonata No 3], and there is lovely, transparent playing of the second subject from Gerhardt, who employs an intense, focused tone with rapid vibrato for the movement's less peaceful moments. Gerhardt's 1711 Goifriller cello sings out in the Andante con variazioni, especially in the expressive fifth variation … Sonata No 4 is even more original … the impressively rapid pizzicatos of the Presto show Reger capable of humour in spite of his stolid image, and the duo plays the Largo movement with deep feeling and eloquent and tender longing' (The Strad)

'Superbly played by these two gifted soloists' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Anyone daunted by the music of Reger will find an ideal introduction here, for in Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker the composer finds advocates who know how to bring his qualities to the fore. Reger’s understanding of the cello is captured in vivid recordings that present the sonatas as natural heirs to Brahms, an accurate reflection too of the stature of these performances' (ClassicalSource.com)

'There are moments of beauty and reflection; moments of songfulness; moments of play, dancing and prancing; and moments of outright vigorous and rambunctious exercise. But even amidst the variety of moods, there is a restfulness about this music. I get the sense that the solo suites were an escape for Reger. And by the time we reach the third suite we are a long way from Bach. I have grown nearly as fond of these suites as I am of the sonatas for solo violin. The musicians are able—Gerhardt strikes me as a fine interpreter of Reger … he has not read too far between lines, as some others might be tempted to do. And the sound seems excellent' (Positive Feedback)

'Dass auch Cellisten, die sich immer wieder einmal über einen Mangel an Repertoire beklagen, einen Bogen um Reger machen, ist kaum nachvollziehbar—vor allem wenn man diese Gesamtaufnahme der Cellosonaten und Solosuiten mit Alban Gerhardt und Markus Becker hört. Im Begleittext geben Gerhardt und Becker gern zu, dass es Reger den Interpreten nicht leicht macht mit seinen vielen peniblen Spielanweisungen. Allein die Notenmaterie zu bewältigen bedeutet Schwerstarbeit. Umso faszinierender ist es dann zu hören, wie sich diese beiden Interpreten den Stoff zu Eigen gemacht haben, wie souverän sie darüber stehen. Das Resultat ist eine musikalische Punktlandung, eine Referenzeinspielung und ein Meilenstein der Reger-Rezeption. Markus Becker machte bereits mit einer Aufnahme sämtlicher Klavierwerke Furore '… seine imense Erfahrung mit Reger war wohl die ideale Voraussetzung für dieses neue bahnbrechende Projekt. Wer sich Regers Musik erobern möchte, sollte hier beginnen. Er wird eine neue Welt entdecken und auch Vertrautes finden, nämlich viele Anklänge an Brahms und Bach' (Fono Forum, Germany)

'Diese Musik ist an sich unbrillant. Sie verschanzt sich hinter einer Fülle von spieltechnischen Barrieren. Gerhardt und Becker aber musizieren das mit symbiotischer Energie und einer so mitreißenden, affektgeladenen Musikalität, dass sie auch die verborgenen Schönheiten ans Licht bringen. Ein starkes Plädoyer für den unbekannten Reger. Außerdem spielt Gerhardt drei barockisierende Reger-Suiten für Cello-Solo, mit großem Ton und singendem Legato' (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany)

'Noch einmal ein Streicher, diesmal der Cellist Alban Gerhardt, der sich längst als einer der Profiliertesten der jüngeren Generation seinen Platz erspielt hat. Den er jetzt, gemeinsam mit dem Pianisten Markus Becker, souverän mit den als spröde und holzig verschrienen vier Sonaten und drei Solosuiten Max Regers verteidigt. Die klingen ungleich lebensvoller und melodieseliger als ihr Ruf, was Gerhards farbenreich nuancierender Strich glutvoll hervorzuheben weiß' (Die Welt, Germany)

'Max Regers Musik, zu Lebzeiten gefeiert, aber auch geschmäht, ist nurmehr selten zu hören … dem Berliner Meistercellisten Alban Gerhardt gebührt vorbehaltloses Lob, dass er für eine Doppel-CD alles—drei Solosuiten, vier Sonaten mit Klavier—aufgenommen hat, das Reger für das Violoncello allein und mit Klavier schuf. Gerhardt gestaltet die harmonisch hochalterierte, vertrackte, aber auch raffinierte, manchmal witzige Musik dermaßen eindringlich und sinnfällig, dass die verbreitete Abstinenz von Regers Werk unbegreiflich wird. Gerhardt und sein Pianist Markus Becker setzen auf vielfältige Vibratokultur, reich nuancierte Abtönungen, verblüffenden Kontrastreichtum in der Dynamik und feuriges Engagement für diese plötzlich unmittelbar fesselnde Musik. Mit blendender Virtuosität, charakteristisch gespanntem, unforciert schlankem, doch kraftvollen Ton entdecken Gerhardt und Becker in Regers Musik Überaschungen des Eleganten und Elegischen, des Spontanen und Gelehrten, des kühn nach vorn Weisenden und des wehmütig Zurückblickenden—eine brillante Leistung' (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany)

'Das ist gewiss keine leichte Kost, die sich … Markus Becker und der steil aufstrebende Cellist Alban Gerhardt da vorgenommen haben: Max Regers vier Sonaten für Violoncello und Klavier enthalten nahezu alles, was sein sperriges Schaffen ausmacht: eine geradezu ins Uferlose wuchernde Harmonik, eine immense strukturelle und klangliche Dichte und einen zerrissenen, mal manisch getriebenen, mal deftig drauflospolternden Gestus. Dass Markus Becker und Alban Gerhardt musikalisch auf derselben Wellenlänge liegen, bewiesen sie gereits vor einigen Jahren in der hannoverschen Musikhochschule, als sie sämtliche Cellosonsaten Ludwig van Beethovens in inniger Zwiesprache und auf technisch wie geistig eindrucksvollem Niveau stemmten. Mit seinem von unbändiger Musizierlust und hohem analytischen Bewusstsein geprägtem Reger-Album vollbringt das Duo eine womöglich noch beeindruckendere Leistung. Allein schon Gerhardts fein-nervig-agiler, dabei nie magerer Celloton ist allein schon ein gutes Kaufargument' (Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany)

'Vier Sonaten mit Klavier, dazu drei Späte Suiten für Solocello—geballter sind Regers enorme Formkünste und seine seltsame All-Harmonik kaum zu erleben. Alban Gerhardt und der Reger-Experte Markus Becker plädieren begeistert und mit großem Können für die komplexen Stücke' (Der Spiegel, Germany)

'Die Musik von Max Reger gilt as schwere Kost … Beim Hören der neuesten Aufnahme mit Alban Gerhardt und Markus Becker erscheint die Musik zwar nicht gerade leicht eingängig, doch besticht der volle, warme Klang, der den Instrumenten entströmt … die kürzlich erschienene Gesamteinspielung zeugt in ihrer hohen Eloquenz und Klangsensibilität von intensiver geistiger Beschäftigung mit den Werken' (Westdeutsche Zeitung, Germany)

'Und doch kann es einem bei den vier Cello-Sonaten und drei Cello-Suiten so ergehen wie dem Cellisten Alban Gerhardt, dass man eine tiefe Zuneigung zu dieser Musik fast. Das liegt einerseits an der überbordenden Ideenfülle von Regers Musik, andererseits an ihrer Glühenden Leidenschaftlichkeit. Die stellt sich freilich nicht von alleine ein, und selbst bei bekannten Interpreten dominiert schon mal das Leid die Leidenschaft. Nicht so bei Alban Gerhardt und Markus Becker, die sich derart souverän durch die riesigen Tonmassen, die abenteuerlichen Modulationen und chromatischen Unwägbarkeiten bewegen, dass sie sich ganz auf die musikalische Darstellung konzentrieren können. Regers Musik wirbt bei ihnen nicht wie ein formloses Wühlen im tönenden Material, sondern wie in klare Formen gegossener Ausdruck. Die drei Cello-Suiten sind dankbare Spielmusik im Gesite Bachs und bilden eine willkommene Ergänzung zu den Cello-Sonaten. Wer Reger noch nicht verstanden hat, dem kann mit dieser auch klanglich gelungenen CD geholfen werden' (Ensemble, Germany)

'Eine herrliche CD mit sämtlichen Werken für Cello solo und Cello und Klavier von Max Reger mit zwei exzellenten jungen deutschen Interpreten: Alban Gerhardt und Markus Becker. Wie die das aufgenommen und eingespielt haben, das ist wirklich sehr, sehr hörenswert … wie es die Beiden schaffen, die vielen Noten, die vielen Verästelungen so souverän schlank zu halten, das ist eine wahre Freude … herrliche Musik' (WDR 3)

'Schon zu seinen Lebzeiten waren die Werke von Max Reger umstritten, bis heute bestehen gewisse Vorbehalte gegenüber zahlreichen Stücken … das könnte sich nach dieser Einspielung ändern … an die Cellowerke gehen Alban Gerhardt und Markus Becker heran wie an moderne Musik, und so ist ihr Spiel nicht von spätromantischem Wulst geprägt, sondern klar, unprätentiös und vom Ausdruck her expressionistisch. Reger wird in seinen Widersprüchen und Extremen gezeigt. Beide Interpreten haben sich ausführlich mit jedem Detail dieser sperrigen, höchste Anforderungen stellenden Werke beschäftigt, die bislang teilweise als unspielbar galten. Nur so erlangten sie die interpretatorische Freiheit, die Strukturen offenlegen und gleichzeitig Wärme, Herz und manchmal auch Humor ausdrücken zu können. Sie nehmen den Stücken die belastende Schwere und entdeckten variantenreiche Klangfarben. Beide Interpreten sind bereits mit etlichen Schallplattenpreisen ausgezeichnet worden, diese Edition könnte ihnen noch eine weitere Auszeichnung einbringen' (Kulturradio)

'Immer wieder beschäftigt sich Alban Gerhardt mit den Rändern des Repertoires. Nachdem der Berliner Cellist in der Vergangenheit schon Konzerte von Robert Volkmann und Friedrich Gernsheim aufgenommen hat, widmet er sich nun Max Regers anspruchsvollem Gesamtwerk für Violoncello. Für die vier Cellosonaten hat er sich dabei mit seinem langjährigen Klavierpartner Markus Becker einen Reger-Experten an die Seite geholt. Gemeinsam schlagen sie erhellende Schneisen in die mitunter wuchernde, emotional aufgeladene Sprache des Spätromantikers. Die drei Solosuiten spielt Gerhardt mit blitzsauberer Technik und unzähligen klanglichen Schattierungen. Ein Beispiel hierfür ist das Andante con variazioni aus der dritten Suite in a-Moll, bei dem der Cellist die gesamte Bandbreite seiner Kunst zeigen kann' (The Morgen, Germany)

Cello Sonatas
CD1
Adagio  [4'16]
Fuge: Allegro  [2'49]
Largo  [4'37]
Gigue: Vivace  [2'18]
CD2
Scherzo: Vivace  [5'22]

Alban Gerhardt’s profound musicality and charisma have made him one of the most sought-after cellists of his generation. His ebullient personality is present in all his performances; he is nevertheless passionately committed to the intentions of the composer, and his recordings are always the product of an intense personal journey into every aspect of the music. Gerhardt’s espousal of Reger’s cello sonatas and suites is thus greatly welcomed. Pianist Markus Becker has released twelve discs of Reger’s keyboard music and is an ideal interpreter.

Reger’s cello sonatas and suites demonstrate every facet of this complex composer and individual. The composer’s passionate commitment to German Romanticism and his neo-Classical inspirations are both here: the great influence by Brahms and then the conscious shrugging-off of that mantle in the face of a complex and progressive stylistic advance. The sonatas span the duration of his career and culminate in the late unaccompanied suites, whose ambition to emulate J S Bach is both patent and largely fulfilled. The duo sonatas demand—and receive in this recording—not only a cellist of unusual powers of empathy and bravura, but also a first-rate pianist. This is fascinating and difficult repertoire, wonderfully performed and recorded.


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The image of Max Reger as a composer of long, tortuously chromatic, over-elaborate polyphonic extravaganzas dies hard. But in his amazing fertility he also produced many pieces which show, on the one hand, his passionate commitment to Germanic Romanticism, and on the other the neo-Classical, indeed neo-Baroque vein of inspiration that made him such an important forerunner of Paul Hindemith. His chamber compositions for cello manifest these highly approachable sides of Reger’s genius very clearly, as the four sonatas with piano span the duration of his career and then culminate in the late unaccompanied suites, whose ambition to emulate J S Bach is both patent and largely fulfilled. The duo sonatas demand not only a cellist of unusual powers of empathy and bravura, but also a first-rate pianist, for the keyboard parts are often exceptionally taxing—yet they do not appear to have been so for the multi-talented Reger himself, who performed them often with cellist friends.

Reger was born in Brand, Bavaria, in 1873, the son of a schoolmaster. He gained his first musical education from his parents and from the town organist at Weiden (where he himself became organist at the age of thirteen), then went on to study under the great pedagogue Hugo Riemann. After a series of teaching and organ appointments in Munich, Leipzig and Jena, in 1911 he became music director at the court of Meiningen, where there was a famous touring orchestra; the Brahms tradition was still strong there, and one of Reger’s predecessors had been Hans von Bülow. However, Reger’s health was frequently poor (and aggravated by his heavy drinking). In the summer of 1914 he had to resign from Meiningen and returned to Jena, but he continued also to teach at Leipzig, where he died in 1916, aged forty-three.

Despite this comparatively short life he left an immense output. Reger was an amazingly prolific composer (he had reached opus 100 by the age of thirty-four), writing multitudinous organ works and chamber music, as well as music for piano, for orchestra and for voices. His personal idiom evolved in the shadow of Brahms, and vastly developed the archaizing strain—the yearning towards strict Baroque contrapuntal forms—that had been present in Brahms’s make-up. Yet at the same time he was greatly influenced by the complex chromaticism and motivic writing of Wagner, and by his slightly older contemporary Richard Strauss. Towards the end of his life he showed an interest in Impressionism, and was moving towards a neo-Classical stance that would probably have served him well had he survived into the 1920s.

In general, however, though his works’ actual expressive import usually identifies with Classical form and traditional Baroque clarity and serenity, Reger’s technical means and vocabulary (a daunting combination of advanced polyphonic techniques with ripe, perhaps overripe, and tonally unstable harmony) mark him out as a child of his time. The result is a style shot through with unsettling ambiguities. Perhaps for this reason, his most celebrated works are his many sets of variations—notably those on themes by Hiller, Mozart and Beethoven—in which the backbone of an older composer’s theme imposes direction and discipline on Reger’s cornucopic invention. However, the cellos sonatas and suites show the full scope of his language applied with great resourcefulness to clear-cut, passionately communicative designs.

Reger began studying composition at Wiesbaden Conservatory in 1890 as a protégé of Hugo Riemann, and at the same time, though just sixteen, was appointed a teacher of piano and organ there in order to alleviate his own and his family’s financial problems. He spent part of most days at Riemann’s home, even taking most of his meals there. His earliest published works date from these student years. Perhaps the most significant of them was the Cello Sonata No 1 in F minor Op 5, composed in 1892. This is generally reckoned to be the first work in which Reger began to display definite individuality in his musical idiom, and Riemann himself apparently declared that he found it difficult to understand. Nevertheless, Riemann assisted Reger in getting the Sonata published, along with his Opp 1–4, in January 1893 (they appeared in London, from the firm of Augener). At that point the work had yet to be publicly performed: the premiere took place in October, given by the dedicatee, Oskar Brückner, with Reger at the piano. The Sonata did not find favour with local critics, and a repeat performance in an all-Reger concert at the Berlin Singakademie the following February was no better received. In later years Reger thought to disown the work, but it has clung on to the fringes of the repertoire and is now generally considered a fascinating early display of mastery.

The Sonata has three movements, the first of them a heroic, wide-ranging Allegro maestoso ma appassionato. From the outset it is clear that Brahms was the young Reger’s musical hero, as both the impassioned cello line and its very full piano counterpart present a host of Brahmsian characteristics in rhythm, harmony and figuration. The cello typically soars and sinks through its full gamut while the piano keeps up a turbulent background. But the second subject, with its sighing, falling third, proves to be a heart-easing melody of great lyrical appeal. A repeated-note idea and urgent semiquaver figurations also feature before the exposition comes to an end; after the briefest of pauses the development begins, ranging far afield harmonically, concentrating on the emotional first subject and rising to wave after wave of climax. There is a full recapitulation, which simultaneously continues the process of development, while the biggest climax is reserved for the coda, though the final bars strike a tone of lyrical nostalgia, even exhaustion.

The central Adagio con gran affetto, in D flat major, begins almost like an operatic scena, with brooding piano chords and a recitative-like cello line. It reaches heights of eloquence without committing itself to a definite melodic shape. A quicker, impassioned middle section (Più mosso assai) deploys mysterious tremolandi in the cello’s low register until a repeated D flat pedal leads back to the opening music, which is now much developed and extended, the cello and piano in serious and melancholic dialogue. A descending triplet figure that featured in the opening span is drawn upon for melodic and accompanimental figuration as the movement rises to a lyrical climax and then evanesces into autumnal shadow.

The last movement is marked Allegro (un poco scherzando) but the ambling character of its opening tune shows Reger had paid close attention to the finale of Brahms’s Op 99 Cello Sonata (in the same key). However the contrasting material has a definite ‘scherzo’ aspect to it, both lively and playful. Also Brahmsian are the pizzicati in the cello as the scherzando music combines with the broader finale theme. The movement progresses in steadily more strenuous (but also good-humoured) vein. Just before the coda there is a moment of quiet reflection that brings home how the opening phrase of the finale theme echoes that of the first movement’s first subject, before the tumultuous closing bars. In the final cadence the piano alludes to the dotted figure with which the sonata had begun.

Reger’s Cello Sonata No 2 in G minor Op 28 was composed in 1898 and is dedicated to Hugo Becker (1863–1941), generally considered one of the greatest German cellists of the pre-Great War period. Reger was just emerging from several difficult years in which his lack of income, debilitating illness and heavy reliance on alcohol had undermined his constitution even as he was beginning to make his way professionally in the world and was winning esteem from composing contemporaries such as Busoni and Richard Strauss. Also the threat of being required to do military service (itself financially draining as the recruit was meant to equip himself out of his own pocket) had been a constant worry and was only withdrawn in 1898 when Reger was declared unfit.

Despite the dedication to Becker and publication in Munich in 1899, the second Sonata was destined not to be performed until 1906. This time there are four movements, and the presence of a short Intermezzo rather than a full-blown slow movement lends the work something of a suite-like character. The Brahmsian influence, in many respects better assimilated than in Op 5, is patent from the thrusting outset of the Agitato first movement with its virile rising theme and surging accompaniment. This is a much more concise and concentrated sonata-form design than its counterpart in the previous sonata. A soft three-note figure in the piano serves to introduce the second subject, which expands from its initial espressivo character to forceful dotted-rhythm writing; mysterious, opalescent figuration introduces a brief codetta. All elements are pressed into service in the development, which throws up an oscillating sextuplet figure that persists into the beginning of the recapitulation. This again continues the process of development while passing the main subjects and their attendant satellites in review. The coda, brief and downbeat, builds upon the codetta of the exposition.

The ensuing scherzo, marked Prestissimo assai, and directed to be played sempre leggiero, is something like a very fast minuet, a witty essay ‘im alten Stil’. The Andantino trio, however, is a warmly Romantic effusion with one of Reger’s tenderest melodies. Something of the same spirit prevails at the start of the E major Intermezzo, where the music is almost redolent of the salon. But it develops into a quite strenuous Poco agitato whose march-like dotted rhythms and internal sextuplet rhythms seem reminiscent of the first movement. The opening idea returns, suitably expanded and embellished, sinking to a peaceful close.

The lilting, graceful rhythm of the last movement—marked Allegretto con grazia (Quasi allegro) and opening in a fulfilled G major—sets the mood for one of Reger’s most inventive finales, which after traversing a good deal of ground harmonically and melodically, and occasionally disturbed by gusts of passion, ends swiftly and unexpectedly softly in a dying fall.

The Cello Sonata No 3 in F major Op 78 was composed and published in 1904. By any standards it is a major work, and it is clear from the outset of the vivacious first movement that Reger’s Brahmsian aspects have retreated into the background in the face of a complex and progressive stylistic advance. The piano’s excited thrumming in the initial bars turns into a persistent sextuplet figuration that is contrasted by both instruments with martial dotted rhythms while urgent melodic figures soar and plunge. This opening subject group unfolds almost on the wing, voluble and turbulent. The long-breathed tranquillo second subject brings much-needed contrast, but only for a moment: the two contrasted characters, hectic and tranquil, alternate and arrive at a third idea, marked by steady piano chords, which concludes what has in fact been a very brief exposition section. The development concerns itself principally with the first subject’s complex of ideas in highly virtuosic style, with molto agitato a characteristic marking as the music dashes from phrase to phrase; the second subject is quite distorted when it is eventually recalled. The thrumming sextuplets signal the onset of the recapitulation which, characteristically, continues and extends the process of development up to the final bars, where the tranquillo character of the second subject is finally allowed full and satisfying expression.

The scherzo, marked Vivacissimo, starts with a low repeated C pizzicato in the cello, and any suspicions that the movement might be inspired by the scherzo of Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet are immediately confirmed by the piano’s sinister chromatic response and the staccato rhythmic writing thereafter. Though the cello plays muted throughout, this is a more capricious, roughly playful and perhaps grotesque movement than Brahms’s highly driven invention, however. It is also much shorter, arriving swiftly at a tenderly melodic trio (Meno mosso) played unmuted. The scherzo music is extended on its reappearance, the cello’s pizzicato tolling away sepulchrally in the final bars of what is a brilliant and unusual invention.

There follows a substantial Andante con variazioni: Reger was a master of variation-form, as his many sets of variations for piano or orchestra or organ, or the variation-finale of his Clarinet Quintet, readily attest. The intriguingly flexible, thirteen-bar theme starts out as a calm, almost hymn-like melody, the first half on the cello, the second on the piano. The six variations (most of them concluded by a rising fourth, pizzicato, on the cello) progressively shorten the note-values and elaborate upon the main melody’s simplicity, roving chromatically further afield and becoming more dance-like and effervescent. The delightful sense of give-and-take between the two instruments is a most attractive feature of this highly inventive movement. Variation 5 is the heart of the piece, an apparently slow variation beginning with antiphonal solo exchanges between the players and then recalling the hectic atmosphere of the first movement, after which Variation 6 is distinguished by the rippling, purling scalic passages of the piano part, which flow into a short coda briefly recalling the variation-theme’s opening.

The finale, marked Allegro vivace, brings emotional relaxation in the form of a cheerful rondo: an alternately ambling, capering, nostalgic, occasionally rather garrulous movement in a scherzo-like 6/8 time, driving at last to a decisive and good-humoured conclusion.

Reger’s last work in this medium, the Cello Sonata No 4 in A minor Op 116, was written in 1910 and is dedicated to another great cellist of the era, Julius Klengel (1859–1933), who was also an important composer for his instrument. Like the second and third sonatas it is in four movements, but unlike all three earlier sonatas it begins with the cello unaccompanied, giving out an eight-note figure that serves as a kind of ‘motto theme’. In its chromatic involution this establishes the soulful nature of the ensuing movement, despite its often very full textures. The highly chromatic nature of Reger’s idiom is apparent in the wandering character of the second subject (beginning with rich piano chords) and the more virile theme that ends the exposition, with its determinedly striding dotted rhythms. The piano takes over the motto theme for the start of the development and then immediately resumes with the dotted-rhythm theme. The centre of the development relaxes into thoughtful exchanges between cello and piano, but the dotted rhythms call to action once more. At the start of the recapitulation the piano begins the motto theme and the cello finishes it, engendering a strenuous and passionate recapitulation in which the various thematic elements are further heightened. The cello restates the motto in the coda, which fades out to an expressive close on a triad of A major.

Though written in a fast 3/4 time, the Presto scherzo creates the impression of a tarantella. This witty and agile movement is full of Reger’s humour in the twists and turns of the writing, the whimsical pizzicati and sudden contrasts of loud and soft. The trio is also gently humorous in the way the cello’s running pizzicati subvert the piano’s solemn chords. A tiny reminiscence of the trio comes just before the end of the scherzo’s shortened reprise. The slow movement is a warmly romantic E major Largo in which the two instruments are very much in concert to create an impression of melodic ecstasy; the model was surely a Brahmsian slow movement, such as that of the older master’s Piano Concerto No 2, but conceived now entirely in Reger’s own melodic and harmonic terms.

The concluding Allegretto con grazia is the most extensive of all Reger’s cello sonata finales, with a pawky dance-tune for main subject, treated somewhat in Baroque manner but with the full resources of modern harmony and counterpoint. The staccato piano-writing, often marked senza pedale, is perhaps intended to evoke (while not exactly imitating) a harpsichord, while the music itself modulates in directions no Baroque composer would have countenanced. Touches of imitation and fugato notwithstanding, this is basically a smilingly good-humoured movement that, after much vigorous capering, comes at last to a peaceful Quasi adagio close.

Reger’s final cello works are the three unaccompanied Suites, Op 131c. They were composed in Meiningen in the Autumn of 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I and also following Reger’s breakdown of health the previous February. Along with their partners in Op 131—the Preludes and Fugues for solo violin, Op 131a, the Canons and Fugues for two violins Op 131b and the three Suites for solo viola Op 131d—they represent a massive compositional undertaking in the spirit of the solo suites and partitas of J S Bach. The cello suites were published in June 1915 and Reger hastened to forward a copy of Suite No 1 to its dedicatee Julius Klengel, writing: ‘I wish you much pleasure with the three things and hope you will use them all, as often as possible, in your lessons.’ It is, nonetheless, difficult to imagine that Reger merely intended them as teaching pieces, for they contain some of his most intimate and eloquent music. When the three suites were first performed in public has not been established, but one of them (which one is unknown) was played on 18 March 1916 in a recital in Aschaffenburg by Maurits Frank; he also played Reger’s Cello Sonata No 4 with the composer, who had only two months to live, at the piano. Maurits Frank was a friend of the young Paul Hindemith, and there is little doubt that Reger’s Op 131 inspired the unaccompanied string sonatas that Hindemith started writing in 1918–19.

The three suites have well-defined individual characters: all three begin with a Prelude (Präludium), but only the second of them closely resembles a Baroque suite. The Präludium of Suite No 1 in G major does, however, recall the opening movements of Bach’s cello suites with its agile semiquaver passagework weaving patterns through the whole range of the instrument’s span. It modulates further than Bach’s norm, however, and is contrasted with a more ruminative idea in double-stopped sixths and thirds. This theme, at a slower pace, then proves to be the first idea of the central C major Adagio, where it receives development and expansion. A livelier ascending-scale figure is the main element of contrast. The movement builds to a climax in which the main theme is intensified by triple- and even quadruple-stopping, then unwinds to a melancholic coda. The suite concludes with a lively triple-time Fuge. As in Bach’s solo string instrument fugues, the interweaving of independent lines is more often suggested than practically achieved, but there is an ingenious evocation of stretto towards the end and the fugue ends with a triumphant low pedal-point on G.

Suite No 2 in D minor (dedicated, like the Cello Sonata No 2, to Hugo Becker) begins with one of Reger’s finest cello inspirations, a Präludium of impassioned sorrow whose Bachian models are transcended in a remarkable display of empathy with the inmost soul of the instrument. Elegiac meditation is the tone throughout, even in the somewhat more virtuosic central section. Reger’s command of a beautiful and flexible ‘speaking’ single line is nowhere better demonstrated. After its eloquent final climax the music subsides swiftly and sadly to a hushed ppp ending. In strong contrast, the succeeding movement is a cheerful Gavotte in F major, very formal in its layout and proportions. The central section makes both witty and poetic use of the alternation of arco and pizzicato playing.

The Largo third movement is a deeply expressive and rather melancholic soliloquy in B flat major, its chaste single line progressively reinforced by plangent double-stopping and more rapid scalic passages. Beginning fairly high in the instrument’s register, it falls into a brown study in the lowest part of its compass in the middle of the movement, and it is in those regions, after a return to the opening theme, that it dies away. Like Bach’s cello suites this one ends with a Gigue, a robust and bracing movement full of strong rhythm and yet imbued with the melancholy qualities of the D minor tonality that were more thoroughly explored in the Präludium. This does not sound like a communal dance, but like one danced alone, with no one to share the pleasure, to keep one’s spirits up.

Suite No 3 in A minor is dedicated to the cellist Paul Grümmer, and though it has only three movements it is formally the most elaborately worked-out of the three members of Op 131c. The Präludium begins with a solemn chordal idea that is contrasted with more fluid but intense melodic writing. In its second span the chordal writing grows more impassioned, with plangent parallel thirds. Rising chromatic sequences reach their peak in the cello’s highest register before the initial pair of ideas is recapitulated. The richness and subtlety of the writing in this movement allows a good player almost infinite scope for expressive interpretation. This is followed by an ebullient scherzo in D minor, Vivace, whose head-motif is a kind of leaping horn-call figure and whose form is made ample by copious structural repeats. In the gentler trio (Un poco meno mosso) the waltz-measure which can sometimes be detected behind the scherzo’s busy-ness comes to the fore.

The finale is an Andante con variazioni, founded on a lyrical and shapely twenty-five-bar theme. Each variation keeps to the same dimensions as the theme, which is treated to various species of decoration. In the tradition of Baroque ‘doubles’, each of the first three variations is apparently faster than the one before, since founded on progressively smaller note-values. With the fourth variation the tonality turns to the major and the theme is richly harmonized in double-stopping (which again reminds one of a group of horns), but it returns to the minor for the climactic fifth variation, a bravura display of virtuosity with emphatic pizzicato chordal punctuation, before a much foreshortened variant of the theme provides an expressive seven-bar coda.

Calum MacDonald © 2008

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