A second disc from new chamber choir Consortium, who were acclaimed for their disc of Brahms’s secular partsongs.
Although Reger’s music has partly recovered from its deeply unfashionable reputation, much of this prolific composer’s work still remains underperformed. This disc offers a chance to redress the balance, both by bringing to light an aspect of Reger’s output that has been relatively neglected, and by demonstrating that the important influences on him were not just musical but literary. Like his near contemporaries, Mahler, Strauss, Wolf and Zemlinsky, Reger responded deeply and imaginatively to the German Romantic poetic tradition. The works recorded here set many of the same poets (and even some of the same poems) that were popular among his colleagues, with a sensitivity and intuitive understanding that belie Reger’s reputation for stodgy academicism. Richard Stokes’s comment, that ‘Reger does not always lose out in comparison’ (when he and Strauss set the same texts as Lieder), could apply equally well to his choral music.
The brevity and self-indulgence of Max Reger’s life—he died at just forty-three, owing in large part to excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco and food—did not prevent him from composing an enormous quantity of music. His worklist, ranging across virtually every genre except opera and ballet, includes 147 numbered opuses (the most substantial pieces on this disc, Der Einsiedler and Requiem, together make up Op 144 and are among the last he composed), as well as many, like Palmsonntagmorgen, that he considered insufficiently important to merit a number. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such productivity went alongside inconsistent levels of inspiration (many critics have put it less politely)—one reason why his reputation went into sharp decline after his death, particularly outside Germany. But if Reger is responsible for his music’s variable quality, then he can hardly be blamed for the other factors that have deprived it of critical appreciation and frequent performance: sweeping dismissals as pedantically academic (by the musical establishment) and backward-looking (by the intellectual avant-garde), misplaced comparisons with the increasingly popular Mahler and Strauss, and tendentious identifications of his aesthetic with German nationalism at a time of intense anti-Teutonic feeling.
Apart from isolated orchestral gems such as the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J A Hiller, the music that has remained most consistently in the repertoire is that for keyboard—particularly the variations on Bach for piano and on Mozart and Beethoven for two pianos, and the Chorale Preludes and Fantasias for organ—and his religious choral output, including Geistliche Gesänge for unaccompanied voices and Psalm 100 for choir and orchestra. This bias of performances towards absolute music and music for the church has led to an emphasis among critics on Reger’s debts to his composing predecessors and to religion. The strong influence of Bach and Brahms on Reger’s music and the more debatable seeping of Wagnerian elements into its harmonic language have been much discussed, and frequently decried. Reger’s complex religious history—he swayed between the Catholicism of his birth and the Protestantism into which he married and to which his music is more closely aligned—also features prominently in accounts of his work. But although Reger was arguably at least as strongly influenced by literature and the visual arts, the relative obscurity of his programmatic music, Lieder and secular part-songs has meant that these factors have been less frequently noted.
This disc offers a chance to redress the balance, both by bringing to light an aspect of Reger’s output that has been relatively neglected, and by demonstrating that the important influences on him were not just musical but literary. Like his near contemporaries, Mahler, Strauss, Wolf and Zemlinsky, Reger responded deeply and imaginatively to the German Romantic poetic tradition. The works recorded here set many of the same poets (and even some of the same poems) that were popular among his colleagues, with a sensitivity and intuitive understanding that belie Reger’s reputation for stodgy academicism. Richard Stokes’s comment, that ‘Reger does not always lose out in comparison’ (when he and Strauss set the same texts as Lieder), could apply equally well to his choral music.
Der Einsiedler, composed in 1915, sets a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857), whose lyrical evocations of troubled souls and nature’s beauties appealed to many of Reger’s contemporaries; Strauss’s setting of the world-weary Im Abendrot as what eventually became the last of the Four Last Songs cemented the association between Eichendorff and the late-Romantic world-view. Der Einsiedler alone had already been set by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Wolf; one of Reger’s most celebrated pupils, Othmar Schoeck, would later add his own interpretation to the canon. The poem’s theme—the ‘comfort’ offered to the world by the ‘quiet night’—has obvious links with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, whose protagonists likewise yearn for ‘night’; intentionally or not, Reger highlights this link with some Tristan-inflected harmony, though this is less evident in the mostly homophonic choral parts than in the orchestral accompaniment (here played in Reger’s idiomatic piano transcription), and in particular in the descending chromatic lines given to the baritone soloist, who enters for the second stanza and whose voice mingles with the chorus in the third. The words ‘O Trost der Welt’, sung frequently by the chorus, are repeated by the soloist as the music finds eventual repose in the home key; the human voice seems metaphorically to convey the comfort offered by night, while the sometimes febrile, harmonically restless piano part represents the subjectivity of the eponymous hermit.
Der Einsiedler shares the key of A flat major with the outer two songs of the Op 39 Drei sechsstimmige Chöre, composed in 1899; the choice of E major for the central piece of that triptych thus makes for a surprising harmonic shift, though such unorthodoxy is not unusual for Reger. These unaccompanied works feature divided altos and basses: the concentration of harmonic interest in the lower voices produces a luxuriant, somewhat clotted effect heightened by the further subdivision of each bass part in the final song. The first song, to a text by Gustav Falke (1853–1916), invokes the attractions of ‘silence’, and Reger’s setting achieves a stillness appropriate to the subject. The striking harmony of the opening bars, in which a bass A flat pedal is maintained under chords in the upper voices that change successively from A flat to G flat major, to the unusual key of G flat minor, exemplifies Reger’s harmonic language in microcosm—no chord taken on its own is particularly noteworthy, but the effect of the rapid succession from one to another is disconcerting and idiosyncratic. The text of the central Abendlied is by the very minor German poet August H Plinke (1855–1910): in contrast to the largely syllabic setting of the first song, words such as ‘Leise’ and ‘Stille’ feature lengthy melismas aptly reflecting the lassitude of the text. The words of the final song are by the ‘unhappy but marvellous’ (Schumann’s description) Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850): with archetypal Romanticism, the life of this Hungarian-Austrian poet, dominated by doomed passion for a married woman and gradual descent into madness, merged with his writing. Frühlingsblick had already been set by Mendelssohn and Siegfried Wagner, son of Richard; Reger’s setting conveys the sense that spring brings hope out of apparent torpor, with the words ‘All’ das frohe Lenzgeschick’ set to lively imitative entries contrasting with the predominantly slow tempos of the rest of the cycle.
The Op 6 songs for mixed four-part choir and piano were composed in 1892 (though not performed until much later), and deploy a simpler style with clear debts to the choral music of Brahms. The first song uses a text by Anton Müller (1792–1843); the second, much briefer though still expansive in style, illustrates the theme of night in Engel’s poetry with melodic lines that regularly plunge to the bottom of the vocal register of each part. As with Op 39, Reger draws on Lenau for the final text; a further intriguing link with the Op 39 set is that this Abendlied, too, is in E major. In both songs, the key has a radiance that, we may assume, Reger associates with evening—though in Op 6, the vocal parts end in a state of harmonic ambiguity, and it is only the substantial piano epilogue (a device perhaps inspired by Schubert) that returns us to the stability of the home key.
The three songs for unaccompanied four-part women’s choir that make up Op 111b employ a diverse range of styles within their modest proportions. The first song is set entirely homophonically; this almost medieval effect, reinforced by the curious dissonances that precede each cadence, is an appropriate response to the text, which Will Vesper (1892–1962) based on an anonymous twelfth-century Mittelhochdeutsch song. The second song, a setting of ‘Abendgang im Lenz’ by Hedwig Kiesekamp (1844–1919), writing under the pseudonym L Rafael, reverts to the chromatic harmony we more customarily associate with Reger. The final song, meanwhile, uses a text by Eduard Mörike (1804–1875) that had previously been set by Schumann and Wolf, among many others: part of its appeal to musicians must lie in its invocation of the soft sound of ‘a distant harp’—a sound effectively conjured up by Reger with a rare sustained consonant chord.
The Christian associations of the titles of the final two works on this disc are in one sense misleading—both texts are secular in origin and neither piece was intended for liturgical use—while also pointing to the importance of religious themes to Reger throughout his career. Palmsonntagmorgen, composed in 1902, sets a poem by Emanuel von Geibel (1815–1884) for unaccompanied five-part chorus. The persistent upward chromatic movement of the lower parts lends an ecstatic quality to the first section of the piece, which reaches a point of repose in E major—the key here associated with morning rather than evening. The second section provides ample evidence of Reger’s ingenuity as a composer of fugue—a form frequently (perhaps too frequently) deployed in his instrumental music, but here supplying both vigorous contrast and an expression of the excitement accompanying Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.
Finally, Requiem sets a poem by the dramatist Friedrich Hebbel (1813–1863): the piece is sometimes known as the ‘Hebbel Requiem’ to distinguish it from the so-called ‘Latin Requiem’ that Reger began in 1914, though he got no further than an opening movement, Totenfeier, and a fragment of the Dies irae. Little of the consolatory quality of the Christian Requiem Mass finds its way into the Hebbel setting, which is dedicated ‘to the memory of the German heroes fallen in the Great War’: from the tolling pedal Ds that dominate the introduction and persistently recur thereafter, through the hollow chords to which Reger sets the words ‘See, they [the dead] hover around you’, to the anguished, expressionistic evocation of the ‘shuddering’, ‘forsaken’, ‘cold’ souls, the piece seems determined to expose death in all its grim horror. This emphasis is all the more poignant given that Requiem, alongside its companion piece Der Einsiedler, was not premiered until July 1916, two months after Reger’s own death. In the work’s final moments, however, the tonality shifts hesitantly from minor to major: though the sentiments expressed by the text remain identical to those of the start (‘Soul, forget not the dead’), the uneasy calm that Reger conveys at the end of this unorthodox work suggests that some measure of religious faith—whether Catholic or Protestant—remained intact as his life approached its partly self-inflicted end.
Michael Downes © 2010