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Hyperion Records

CDA67635 - Reger & Strauss: Piano Concertos
CDA67635

Recording details: March 2010
Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2011
DISCID: 230D5304
Total duration: 56 minutes 41 seconds

'While an easy majority of pianists would run for cover when faced with such sheerly physical demands, Hamelin relishes every challenge, clarifying and refining Reger's potential for opacity at every point. His first entry, like a thunderclap, makes you leap to attention but so too does his expressive beauty in the subsequent molto tranquillo' (Gramophone)

'Reger's Piano Concerto is a work of immense power that is nevertheless prone, in the wrong hands, to sound like a heavy Brahmsian homage … Marc-André Hamelin's hands, however, are definitely the right ones, and this is one of the most lucid, as well as passionate, readings of the piece I have heard … if the Reger is usually in danger of ponderosity, Richard Strauss's youthful Burleske can easily sound meretriciously clever. But Hamelin gives one of the most stylish and elegant accounts of it I've heard, pointing up the warm lyricism of the waltz-episode and setting the sparkling wit of Strauss in scintillating contrast to the earthly humour of his fellow-Bavarian, Reger' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Both performances are formidable. Marc-André Hamelin does powerhouse things with the Reger, and is notably harrowing in the great central largo. The skittish charm with which he plays the Burleske, meanwhile, belies its often atrocious difficulty. Ilan Volkov and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra are first rate' (The Guardian)

'If there were a contest for the work that most clearly exhibited the 'too-many-notes' syndrome, Reger's 1910 Piano Concerto would be a leading contender; but if there were a contest for the pianist who could best take such overwritten material and make it sound fresh and transparent, Marc-André Hamelin would be the easy winner. It's therefore no surprise that, having already given us one of the most convincing representations of Reger's solo piano music, Hamelin should offer up the most successful performance of the Reger Concerto that I've ever heard' (International Record Review)

'Marc-André Hamelin handles its manifest challenges with a Regerian earnestness that ensures its density remains chewy. And he deliveres Richard Strauss's early, Brahmsian Burleske with easy brilliance' (The Irish Times)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Reger & Strauss: Piano Concertos
Allegro moderato  [17'55]

The Reger concerto has a formidable reputation—dense, harmonically complex and with far too many notes for the average pianist. Who better then to decipher it than Marc-André Hamelin? In his hands this rarely recorded behemoth reveals both passion and a lyricism so often lost in lesser performances. He is wonderfully partnered by Ilan Volkov and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester who share the pianist’s desire to elucidate an often misunderstood work.

While the Reger concerto comes from the end of his career, the Strauss Burleske is a product of that composer’s prodigious youth. This ebullient work has long been a Hamelin ‘party-piece’, and he plays it with an unmatched brilliance which surely captures the essence of this humorous music and will have the listener on the edge of his seat.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Reger, Strauss and the spirit of Brahms
Nicolas Slonimsky called Reger ‘the last great contrapuntist of the twentieth century’ and the composer’s devotion to Bach was an essential part of his musical make-up. Early in his career, Reger dedicated his Suite Op 16 for organ ‘to the memory of J S Bach’. In 1896 he sent a copy to Brahms, another of his idols, asking for permission to dedicate a work to him. Brahms was charmed: ‘You spoil me with the lovely offer of a dedication. Permission for that, however, is really not necessary! I had to smile, since you approach me about this matter and at the same time enclose a work whose audacious dedication terrifies me!’ Reger never dedicated a major work to Brahms, but his Rhapsodie Op 24 No 6 is subtitled ‘to the memory of J Brahms’, and ‘Resignation’ from the Sieben Fantasiestücke Op 26 was inscribed with the date of Brahms’s death (‘3 April 1897 – J Brahms †’) and ends with a quotation from the slow movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Just over a decade later, Bach and Brahms were both central to the conception of Reger’s Piano Concerto.

Reger’s view of musical form was grounded in his lessons with Hugo Riemann, whose rigorous methods Tovey considered ‘mechanically systematized’. Tovey also disapproved of the results: ‘Everything has been worked out from one detail to the next as if it had been plotted on squared paper ready marked by someone else.’ Despite these reservations, Tovey was more positive about Reger’s music: ‘Much is to be learnt from Reger. His texture is inevitably thick […] but it is astonishingly sonorous […] The fundamental reality of Reger is that he is not only a sincere artist but a consummate rhetorician.’

Reger, like Schoenberg, regarded Brahms as a progressive. In 1907 Riemann published a reactionary article—‘Degeneration and Regeneration in Music’—in which he accused modern composers of writing music that was too difficult, too complex and even unnatural. In a fiery response to his old teacher’s diatribe, Reger argued that all great composers had shaken up traditions, that Bach had been considered incomprehensible, that Beethoven was thought to be insane, and that Brahms found ‘new, unimagined emotional moods’. Proud to call himself a modernist (and praising Richard Strauss in particular), Reger dismissed Riemann’s attack as the work of a musical fossil who was unable to keep up with progress and for whom a great composer was necessarily a dead composer.

Among his contemporaries, Reger was particularly admired by Schoenberg. In Structural Functions of Harmony (1948) Schoenberg described Reger’s music as ‘rich and new’ and elsewhere named him—along with Mahler and Strauss—as one of the modern composers from whom he had learned the most. Schoenberg programmed Reger in the concerts of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (founded in 1904); at the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, established by Schoenberg in 1918, Reger was played more often than any other composer (including Debussy and Schoenberg). In 1922 Schoenberg wrote to Zemlinsky that ‘I consider him a genius’. Even so, Schoenberg later worried that ‘people will wonder why I haven’t done more for Reger. But my friends know that I often planned to do something.’ Alban Berg was another supporter: ‘Reger favours a rather free construction, which, as he says, is reminiscent of prose […] This is the reason for his music’s relative lack of popularity. In fact, it is the only reason, I would assert, for neither the other attributes of his thematic writing (motivic development of multi-voiced phrases), nor his harmony, nor his contrapuntal writing, are likely to keep his musical language from being understood.’

In May 1910 Reger was in Dortmund for a three-day festival of his music—a remarkable accolade for a composer in his mid-thirties. The concerts covered the whole range of Reger’s output, and the pianist Frieda Kwast-Hodapp (1880–1949) was there to play the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J S Bach Op 81. Reger had first promised her a concerto when she visited Leipzig in 1906, and did so again in Dortmund. He returned from the festival in high spirits and on 12 May, the day after getting back, wrote to Hans von Ohlendorff that he was ‘10,000 miles deep into hard work’ on the new concerto. The huge first movement was finished by the end of June; on 6 July he invited Karl Straube to come and hear the second movement, which was ‘all done’; and he wrote to Straube again on 16 July to announce that the finale ‘took seven days to draft and score; only someone who really churns out the stuff could have done it!’ The publisher Bote & Bock had the complete work by 22 July. The autograph manuscript was lost when Bote & Bock’s Berlin headquarters were destroyed in 1943, but it apparently bore a characteristic inscription to Frieda Kwast-Hodapp: ‘This beastly stuff belongs to Frau Kwast. The Chief Pig, Max Reger, confirms it.’

The ‘beastly stuff’ was first performed in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 15 December 1910. Frieda Kwast-Hodapp was the soloist and Arthur Nikisch conducted. Reger was delighted with the performance, nicknaming the soloist ‘Kwast-Hutab’ (‘Kwast-Hats off’) in honour of her playing. The critics, however, hated it. Paul Bekker—a champion of Mahler and Schoenberg—was withering, though rather contradictory. On the one hand, Bekker deplored ‘this kaleidoscope-like jumble of ideas that have no real beginning, no recognizable conclusion, no organic coherence’, and on the other, charged Reger with using ‘slavishly exact copies of old forms’ that had been transformed into ‘unnaturally distended monstrous growths […] the products of a personality who lacks the capacity for organic construction’. If anything, the judgement of Walter Niemann was even more negative: ‘The F minor Concerto presents no particular difficulty to those pianists familiar with Brahms and Liszt, and who possess developed full-chord and register-transfer skills. The work is halfway inventive only in the first movement and for the rest is simply schematic and Max-imally irritating. Thus I must openly acknowledge that the work seemed to me to be the latest miscarriage of the Reger muse as she sinks deeper and deeper into inbreeding.’ Reger was hurt by the hostile press reception of the Piano Concerto—it was a critical assault that literally drove him to drink and by the following year he was seen turning up to concerts blind drunk. His health quickly declined, leading to his death (from a heart attack) in 1916, when he was just forty-three.

In February 1912 Reger wrote to Georg, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen: ‘My Piano Concerto is going to be misunderstood for years. The musical language is too austere and too serious; it is, so to speak, a pendant to Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto. The public will need some time to get used to it.’ Reger was still bitter about the critics: ‘It’s really very funny that the German critics yet again are baffled when faced with my Piano Concerto, since all three movements are written in strict classical forms, and in the Largo the chorale ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’ appears note-for-note as the principal melody—and none of those donkeys noticed.’ Walter Frisch writes that Reger was ‘proud of his Piano Concerto, claiming that in it he had “found a path that is more likely to lead to a goal than all the other new paths”’, and Reger’s own estimation of the work makes his irritation with the critics all the more understandable. Its subsequent history is more encouraging: the young Rudolf Serkin gave a highly praised performance in Vienna with Furtwängler and the Wiener Tonkünstler Orchestra in January 1922, and when Serkin and Mitropoulos gave the US premiere in Minneapolis on 16 November 1945, the reception was so enthusiastic that the finale had to be encored. Some resistance remained, even from the Reger pupil George Szell. When Serkin suggested they should perform the Concerto, Szell replied that he couldn’t ‘stomach it’; Serkin was ‘surprised, disappointed and hurt’ by Szell’s reaction.

In Frieda Kwast-Hodapp, Reger had a swashbuckling and fearless soloist, and the piano writing in the concerto reflects this, conceived for a consummate virtuoso. The instrument is treated with a sheer flamboyance that sets this work apart from some of Reger’s solo piano music. Despite his dislike of the work, Walter Niemann’s review (quoted above) identified the two dominant influences—Brahms and Liszt—on the sonority and layout of the piano part. The influence of Brahms is clear. What Charles Rosen called ‘the inspiration of awkwardness’ in Brahms’s piano style is also evident in Reger’s concerto. It makes huge technical demands on the soloist while avoiding the temptation to dazzle for the sake of it. As well as some daunting passages in octaves, the soloist has to negotiate some elaborate figurations in the inner parts, and some thoroughly Brahmsian leaps and cross-rhythms. This apparent ‘awkwardness’ is for strictly musical ends—partly to integrate the solo part into the musical argument rather than to dominate it, and partly to draw some unusually rich colours from the keyboard. But other passages recall the kind of kaleidoscopic textures that can be found in Liszt’s B minor Sonata—from massive chords to passages of glittering delicacy ranging across the whole compass of the piano. Reger draws on the examples of these earlier masters to fashion an individual manner of writing for the soloist that requires a grand display of keyboard prowess while never compromising the fundamental seriousness of the musical argument.

The opening of the Allegro moderato (with a timpani roll and a rhythm that both echo the start of Brahms’s D minor Concerto) shows Reger at his most advanced harmonically, with a deliberate avoidance of the home key (F minor). Like Brahms’s model, the first movement is much the longest of the three. After a brief orchestral introduction, the piano erupts in fortissimo octaves. The highly developed dramatic interplay between soloist and orchestra (the piano writing often overtly Brahmsian) brings to mind Tovey’s description of Reger the ‘consummate rhetorician’. The radiant second theme (marked molto tranquillo) is Reger at his most memorably lyrical.

The slow movement, Largo con gran espressione, begins with a piano soliloquy. Hermann Unger described this movement as ‘an ever-blossoming melody’, and a ‘transfiguration scene’. But what is being transfigured? Reger claimed that he used a chorale tune ‘note-for-note as the principal melody’ (the most famous of the Passion chorales, ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’—‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’; its first four notes are clearly heard on the oboe and first violins a few minutes in). Reger draws on two other chorales: ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ (used in both the St Matthew and St John Passions) steals in at the first hushed entry of the strings, and at the end of the movement a fragment of ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ is heard on the oboe. Yet Reger never sounds like pastiche; he employs these chorale fragments as part of a richly original and beautiful fabric. The finale, marked Allegretto con spirito, is a stormy piano-orchestra dialogue that eventually resolves into an exciting dash to an affirmative conclusion in F major.

If Reger’s Piano Concerto is ‘a pendant to Brahms’s D minor Concerto’, Strauss’s Burleske is more of a whimsical homage to Brahms’s B flat major Piano Concerto. Reger held Strauss in high esteem, calling him ‘truly a great musician with tremendous ability’. Though the two were not always on the best of terms, each admired the other. In the 1890s Strauss had encouraged Joseph Aibl to publish a number of Reger’s earlier compositions, a gesture for which Reger was always grateful. In a speech at the Dortmund Reger-Fest, Reger named Strauss as one of the composers from whom he had learned the most. The Brahms connection in the Burleske is more surprising since Strauss was cool about much of Brahms’s music in later life, but as a young man in Meiningen he attended the rehearals and first performance of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Brahms on 25 October 1885, and was bowled over.

Strauss and Reger both had stints as conductor of the Court Orchestra at Meiningen (in 1885–6 and 1911–14 respectively) under the enlightened patronage of Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen (1826–1914). It was there that Strauss composed his Burleske, one of his most assured early works, and one of his few pieces to show the unmistakable influence of Brahms. The Burleske has clear parallels with the second movement of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. According to Michael Kennedy, ‘the genius of the Burleske is that it shows Strauss using parody as an act of homage’. This is evident not only in the figurations and voicing of the piano part (moving from Brahmsian textures one moment to some decidedly Lisztian cascading octaves the next), but also—as Bryan Gilliam has noted—in the appearance of Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’ in the cadenza, and allusions to the storm music from Die Walküre. Strauss willingly admitted that this piece was written at a time when his passion for Brahms—he called it ‘Brahmsschwärmerei’—was at its most intense. Hans von Bülow, for whom Strauss had intended the Burleske, declared it to be unplayable, but it was taken up by Eugen d’Albert a few years later, and dedicated to him. D’Albert gave the premiere in Eisenach on 21 June 1890, with Strauss conducting—the same concert included the premiere of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. D’Albert also provides a final link to Brahms: on 10 January 1896 he appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic playing both Brahms piano concertos, with the composer conducting.

Nigel Simeone © 2011


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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod' (CDA67975)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67975  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard' (CDA68043)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68043  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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