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Hyperion Records

CDA67683 - Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 7 – Max Reger
Front illustration by Donya Claire James (b?)

Recording details: September 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: June 2009
Total duration: 108 minutes 19 seconds

'A new kind of Bach sound which belongs to both piano and organ … [BWV14] is slow and thoughtful, yet is made serenely beautiful in Becker's glowing performance … fascinating, and I do recommend you to try this collection. It really is rewarding' (Gramophone)

'Markus Becker is a heroic exponent of this obscure yet satisfying repertoire … the core of the two discs is Reger's series of Chorale Prelude transcriptions, in which … he finds a profound and plangent expressiveness … a fascinating addition to Hyperion's series of Bach transcriptions' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Marvelous, both Reger and Becker balancing the intimate moments with the public ones' (Fanfare, USA)

Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 7 – Max Reger
Prelude  [5'26]
Fugue  [6'19]
Prelude  [8'38]
Fugue  [6'42]
Prelude  [7'35]
Fugue  [8'53]

Hyperion’s Bach piano transcription series, which has done so much to illustrate the unique effect of Bach on the nineteenth-century mind, has reached volume 7 with the complete transcriptions by Max Reger.

Reger was described by his contemporaries as ‘the modern-day Bach’, partly because of his frequent use of fugue and other characteristic forms. His skills as a pianist were matched by his abilities as an organist—a situation that influenced his a profound understanding of Bach’s counterpoint. Therefore it is fascinating to see the composer’s direct response to his predecessor.

In the young German virtuoso Markus Becker we have the ideal performer: he has already recorded the complete original piano works of Reger. As Francis Pott writes in his comprehensive booklet notes: ‘In adopting a balance of linear and polyphonic clarity with the full expressive resources of the piano and of virtuoso technique, Markus Becker respects the historic significance both of Bach’s original inspirations and of Reger’s transcriptions as documents of their own time’.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In an age that sets such store by ‘authenticity’ in performance, it is salutary to be reminded that modern research offers us only a partial view of what Baroque practice actually was. Not only may this become prescriptive, it may also foster anomalous attitudes. In the twenty-first century, scrupulous scholarly attention to Baroque ornamentation, tempos, ensemble sizes and other such considerations may predispose the soi-disant purist to sneer a little at the view of Handel’s Messiah posthumously afforded by, say, Huddersfield Choral Society and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent. At the same time, Mozart’s re-orchestration of that work, incorporating clarinets, tends now to be viewed as a valuably instructive document in its own right, opening wider our window onto history rather than incongruously staining its glass after the fashion of a later time. Clearly there can be no definitive rule as to when a line is crossed between anachronism and historical significance, but it is heartening that current attitudes have embraced with open arms the art of piano transcription from Baroque source materials, thus recognizing a valuable and thought-provoking extension of modern recital repertoire.

The first attention paid to Bach’s organ works as suitable vehicles for transcription seemingly came from Liszt, who sensed keenly the spiritual presence and legacy of his distant predecessor at Weimar upon arriving there himself. He began formulating transcriptions soon after his first visit in 1841 and by 1850 he had completed his arrangements of the six Preludes and Fugues BWV543–548. (The last of these, frequently nicknamed ‘The Wedge’ owing to a chromatically widening oscillation in its fugue subject, is the only one of them also transcribed by Reger.) Some twenty years later Liszt made an isolated transcription also of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV542.

Liszt’s transcriptions are distinct from his ‘paraphrases’ in that they attempt to transfer a work as faithfully as possible from its original terms into those of another instrument. A paraphrase was a freshly conceived flight of fancy which saw the original material as fair game for free development, combination and metamorphosis of themes. In the case of opera paraphrases a predatory kind of virtuosity was frequently an explicit end in itself. By contrast, the reverence of Liszt’s Bach transcriptions is detectable not least in their restraint. The necessity to incorporate pedal parts into music for two hands alone partially accounts for this, but Liszt showed no inclination to expand sonority in ways that might offer a kind of equivalent to organ stops doubling keyboard lines at the octave above. Such a step would inevitably multiply the number of notes on the page, thereby emphasizing the indispensable role of the sustaining pedal and also demanding boundless subtlety in its use.

Such an approach—epitomized in the Bach transcriptions by Reger’s great contemporary Ferruccio Busoni, whose own conception and playing of these works made the fullest possible use of pedal-infused sonority—is in itself no less faithful than Liszt’s, since it takes practical account of the effect of octave doublings created by other means on the organ. This also raises important questions of tempo, since by acknowledging properties of organ performance, including the resonant acoustic of most consecrated buildings, both transcriber and performer find themselves seeking to recreate the necessary grandeur of effect in parallel, almost metaphorical terms, not literal ones.

Alongside Busoni and Reger sits a host of other pianists and composers who ventured into similar territory. Along with several of Bach’s chorale preludes, the ‘Wedge’ Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548, cited above, exists in a fine transcription by the Russian pianist Samuel Feinberg, noted also for his performances of The Well-tempered Clavier. Like Reger, both Busoni and Eugen d’Albert turned their attentions to the Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV532, amid extensive individual outputs of transcriptions, with d’Albert also contributing a fine version of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582. This field includes also the celebrated Liszt pupil Carl Tausig, Ignaz Friedman and, if one widens it to admit other areas of Bach’s output, Camille Saint-Saëns, who put several movements from the sacred cantatas and the violin sonatas to expressive use. More eccentrically, York Bowen produced a version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (nowadays considered unlikely to have been the original work of Bach) for two pianos, and Percy Grainger an ebullient arrangement of its F major counterpart, BWV540, for three.

Amidst this distinguished company Reger stands alone but for the company of Saint-Saëns, in that his skills as a pianist were matched by those as an organist. (Not even Liszt ever possessed a full pedalling technique.) Though the pantheon above shows that mastery of both piano and organ was far from indispensable to successful transcription, in Reger’s case a profound understanding of Bach’s counterpoint had developed through his training as an organist, and also through his apprenticeship in composition with the theorist Hugo Riemann, in which Bach and Brahms were of central importance. Reger’s organ output includes a Fantasia and Fugue on BACH (conventionally appropriating the pitches B flat–A–C–B natural) and many other works in which the Lutheran chorale tradition formed the basis for imposing edifices of motivically led counterpoint. These pieces were mostly completed by 1900. A Bavarian by birth, Reger taught at the University of Leipzig and also spent the years 1911–13 as conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra before moving to Jena. In his last years he was planning a symphony which never came to fruition: at the age of only forty-three he was discovered dead in a hotel room, the probable victim of a hard-driven and hard-drinking existence, his rumbustious energy cut short and his vast promise largely unfulfilled. His remarkable and eclectic Four Tone Poems, Op 128, inspired by Arnold Böcklin paintings and completed at Meiningen in 1913, powerfully suggest this. The third movement, The Isle of the Dead, strikes a more starkly neurasthenic note than Rachmaninov’s response to the same canvas some four years earlier, while the movements on either side of it testify to a balletic deftness and virtuosity in Reger’s orchestral command; the first movement could reasonably be mistaken for a product of the emergent English pastoral tradition. Comparison with the imposing but sometimes opaque weightiness of the organ works suggests a Protean intelligence inhabiting multiple personalities.

In Reger’s Bach transcriptions we may reasonably look for a mutual accommodation of the virtues central to the piano and the organ respectively: in the former case, depth and weight of tone, variegated by relaxed arm weight, felicities of pedalling and, above all, subtle delineation of individual ‘voices’ (the term which persisted in Baroque instrumental music as a recognition of its a cappella choral ancestry); in the latter, the fastidious devotion purely to articulation, since differences of volume between neighbouring or simultaneous notes are impossible without the mechanical intervention of stops, the swell pedal or piston buttons.

It can readily be seen that the pianistic tradition of Busoni, Reger, d’Albert and Friedman invites lateral creative thinking in its approach to Bach, though to term it ‘romanticized’ arguably misrepresents both the depth of intellectual engagement and the reverent sense of responsibility entertained by these great musical minds. When the great Russian pianist Heinrich Neuhaus (1888–1964) wrote in his seminal work The Art of Piano Playing that ‘polyphony is the soul of the piano’, he could probably have spoken for all these fellow artists. For much of the time it is evident both in their sounds and in their printed scores that they viewed the pedal as a kind of alchemical resource, essential to the recreation on parallel terms of the contemplative distance and resonant interior space which inform our potentially mystical experience of great sacred buildings.

For the trained organist, there is of course no ‘need’ to transcribe the organ Urtext of Bach in order to perform the music; and something of an ‘Urtext mentality’ is perhaps likely to persist even in the act of transcription to the piano, sometimes revealing an approach that is more literal than lateral—in a sense, more Bach than Busoni. Though Reger undeniably invades Busoni territory in his extrovert transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV532, there are other instances where his approach is notable for its sobriety and restraint, as in a number of the chorale preludes.

Markus Becker here presents Reger’s transcriptions of selected chorale preludes, framed on each disc by the arrangements of three larger-scale Prelude and Fugue pairings and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Distinction between the terms Prelude and Toccata is largely insignificant, since evidence suggests that Bach himself may not have called these movements anything at all. Authorship of both the Prelude and Fugue in D major and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor has been called into question. Such matters can be confused by the absence of an autograph manuscript, as in the case of the D minor work, and sometimes by the possibility that surviving sources are of works already transcribed from the outputs of other composers (much about the D minor Fugue is redolent of violin writing). Certainly the D major Fugue’s sequential subject is more discursive and less amenable to complex imitative design than many Bach fugues.

In contrast, the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major are among the relatively few pieces published in Bach’s own lifetime, appearing respectively at the beginning and end of Part Three of the Clavierübung, in 1739. (The entirely spurious ‘St Anne’ nickname arises from a fugue subject sharing the outline of the eponymous hymn tune attributed to William Croft (1678–1727), sung to the words ‘O God, our help in ages past’.) These movements are on a grand scale, the fugue being a tripartite sequence of expositions, crowned finally by a majestic extension of the fugue subject (originally in the organ pedal department) surrounded by a tapestry of the material generated from it by motivic argument: a probable example of conscious theological symbolism, perhaps suggesting both the Trinity and a God enthroned amidst the objects of his creation. The more austere but scarcely less intricate or imposing E minor Prelude and Fugue were composed after Bach’s move to Leipzig in 1723, and are noteworthy for a prelude which is arguably more complex and ambitious than its companion fugue.

With the exception of Ich ruf’ zu dir and Durch Adams Fall the chorale preludes selected by Reger are not those chosen by Busoni. Those numbered between BWV651 and 668 are commonly known as ’The Eighteen’ Chorale Preludes and were composed very early in Bach’s Weimar period (1708–23) but copied and revised during the last Leipzig years (and final years of Bach’s life). Those items bearing an earlier BWV number come from the Orgelbüchlein, now thought to have been begun by 1713, again during the composer’s Weimar period. Bach’s intention was to compose 164 chorale preludes in this volume but he completed only 45. The remaining three items presented here lie within no collated sequence. Reger’s selection ranges from the florid, extended conceptions of Valet will ich dir geben and Komm, Heiliger Geist to the profound introspection of An Wasserflüssen Babylon and O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, likewise to the relative academic severity of Nun danket alle Gott and the single-page evanescence of Ach wie nichtig, Durch Adams Fall and Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. The series appears conceived by Reger as a viably contrasted group for concert performance or, indeed, private use, bearing in mind the profound intimacy attending some of this music.

Although in the case of two chorale preludes Reger reinforces the chorale melody at the suboctave, in general these transcriptions content themselves with the already significant challenge of accommodating the pedal part as left-hand octaves (taking the organ’s 8- and 16-foot pipes into account). A consequence of this is that the inner voices require many more rapid alternations between free fingers of each hand than it is worthwhile or helpful to try to indicate through notation on one or other stave. Given the perpetual art of illusion demanded of the piano’s sustaining pedal, the player is guided generally by whatever best serves harmonic clarity and the linear projection of individual strands. Playing the organ pedal part in octaves seemingly at the same time as the tenor voice regularly demands rapid upward crossings of left-hand fingers over the thumb and a minimizing of the inevitable desynchronization that results. One notes, however, that by Reger’s time a marginal ‘tempo rubato’ bass anticipation of chordal material had already become fairly conventional within the interpretation of Romantic repertoire, such as the mazurkas and waltzes of Chopin. There is therefore a certain fortuitous aptness in its appearance within Reger’s transcriptions. Similarly, the massive chordal sonorities favoured here in the larger works seem consistent with an already monumental ‘take’ on the originals, rather than merely insisting upon spacious tempos as a gratuitous by-product of dense texture.

In adopting a balance of linear and polyphonic clarity with the full expressive resources of the piano and of virtuoso technique, Markus Becker respects the historic significance both of Bach’s original inspirations and of Reger’s transcriptions as documents of their own time.

Francis Pott © 2009

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