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Hyperion Records

CDA67892 - Reger: Violin Concertos

Recording details: February 2011
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Stephan Reh
Release date: January 2012
DISCID: 4F117D05
Total duration: 74 minutes 37 seconds


'Full of craft and a lyricism often of inspired quality … Tanja Becker-Bender is more than equal to the demands of the solo part, and Lothar Zagrosek's masterly articulation of Reger's Klangstrom (stream of sound), in all its transparency and modulated colour and variety of incident is, if anything, an even more distinguished contribution' (Gramophone)

'Reger's Violin Concerto … is one of his most heart-warming works, allowing his intensely lyrical streak free rein. It's also superbly written for the soloist … aided by first-rate orchestral playing, Zagrosek finds transparency in Reger's original, bringing out a wealth of significant detail in its rich polyphonic tapestry. Chief honours, of course, go to Tanja Becker-Bender: she not only shows stamina, but also technical command, beauty of tone and clear sympathetic identification with the music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'[Violin Concerto] On its own terms it's remarkably beautiful, and Tanja Becker-Bender does wonderful things with it, shaping its lines with great lyrical force and a tremendous sense of drama. There's strong playing from the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under Lothar Zagrosek, too' (The Guardian)

'Reger's Violin Concerto is probably the longest by a major composer … but such is the beauty of its themes and the master of its developmental invention, to say nothing of the committed nature of Tanja Becker-Bender's playing that … I was unaware an hour had passed … this is a truly outstanding CD of very fine music, excellently performed and recorded' (International Record Review)

'[Violin Concerto] Often considered a 'monster'—Reger's own word—but its time may at last have come. And this lovely, romantic version by Tanja Becker-Bender should help it along' (Daily Mail)

'Max Reger (1873-1916) is a composer whose best music rewards the effort taken to absorb it—and so it proves with the Violin Concerto of 1907 … this huge work has a first movement into which more conventionally ‘romantic’ works by Mendelssohn and Bruch could comfortably fit. It therefore makes demands on the stamina of the violinist, not just technically but in taxing their ability to keep the melodic threads running. Tanja Becker-Bender responds to the challenge magnificently, as do Lothar Zagrosek and his Berlin orchestra. This is a warm hearted performance right from the start' (

The Romantic Violin Concerto
Violin Concertos
Allegro moderato  [27'41]

Reger is one of those composers more talked about than listened to—caricatured as a prolific writer of organ music with a penchant for dense musical textures. But he certainly wasn’t averse to a good tune: the two Romances abound in lush lyricism, while the magnificent A major Violin Concerto shows him continuing in the tradition of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. An unashamedly symphonic work, it’s nearly an hour long—around the same length as the nearly-contemporary Elgar Violin Concerto. No less a figure than Adolf Busch championed it—first performing it when he was just sixteen.

The young German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender, who has already made such an impact in Schulhoff and Paganini, is joined by Lothar Zagrosek and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester for this 11th volume in the Romantic Violin Concerto series—a series that is triumphantly demonstrating how much great music there is out there just waiting to be rediscovered.

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In his later years, when asked what Reger meant to him, Paul Hindemith replied: ‘Max Reger was the last giant of music. I am quite inconceivable without him.’ A man who had reflected as widely as Hindemith on the composer’s trade and the history of music did not make so weighty an assertion carelessly or by chance. By unreservedly acknowledging Reger’s status, he was at the same time indirectly urging a revision of the prevailing post-war view that the composer had more or less deservedly sunk into oblivion. For, after 1945, Reger’s reputation seemed to have faded once and for all. His music did not enjoy the undiminished esteem of the operas of Strauss (despite the latter’s entanglement with National Socialism), it did not attain the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, and it did not experience a renaissance like the symphonies of Mahler—without speaking of the distance that separated him from the great musical figures of the second half of the nineteenth century like Wagner and Brahms, who in their turn imagined themselves as standing on the shoulders of the giants of Classicism.

On top of this came the fact that Germany had largely lost touch with an authentic tradition of Reger interpretation after 1933, when such major exponents of the composer as Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin emigrated. This overall picture was not fundamentally altered either by Hermann Scherchen’s commendable radio recordings of a series of orchestral works in the 1950s, or by the continuing cultivation of his organ and choral compositions in church music circles and the place the Variations on a theme of Mozart continued to hold in the repertoire of leading conductors and orchestras. And if the post-war avant-garde noticed Reger’s music at all, it was only as a negative example of hopelessly outdated syntax and formal conceptions. Only with the post-modern re-examination of the issue of tonality and the reaffirmation of the expressive principle did Reger’s music return to the aesthetic spotlight; Wolfgang Rihm (born in 1952) has drawn from its idiosyncratic musical prose important stimuli for his own experiments with a flowing form tending towards the ‘endless’.

What was Hindemith’s justification for his assertion that Reger was the ‘last giant’ of music? Like Schoenberg—who had begun an intensive (though localized and chronologically limited) exploration of Reger’s music in his ‘Private Society for Musical Performances’ after the First World War—he found it in Reger’s instinctive mastery of the powers of tonal composition and its sonorous and linear possibilities. For Hindemith, Reger was the epitome of a ‘composer’s composer’, who did not think ‘with’ but ‘in’ notes, and moreover produced music with the same natural consistency and steadiness as an apple tree brings forth its fruits (to borrow Alan Walker’s apt phrase about Franz Liszt). Reger’s tremendous productivity and the ever-fascinating spectacle of him constantly subduing his torrent of ideas suggested comparison with Johann Sebastian Bach, the God of composers. Reger himself was profoundly convinced that he shared ‘the same’ grammar with Bach. This view seems questionable, given the primacy of harmony in Reger’s music: for did he not, above all, implement Liszt’s postulate that any given chord could follow any other, within the limits of the tonal system? Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth in Reger’s avowed kinship with Bach, sustained by his self-consciousness and sense of mission. As a child of historicism, he was utterly convinced that his personal aesthetic aims were to be achieved first and foremost through the emulation of historical models. Although he was following ‘new paths’ and, as he provocatively remarked in 1907, ‘riding unswervingly to the left’, at the same time he was anxious to avert the charge of unrestrained modernity. Such an accusation was politically explosive in the German Empire, for it was synonymous with suspected sympathies with ‘social democracy’.

However, Reger had begun his career from the diametrically opposite position: he was regarded as a highly talented epigone of Brahms, whose musical language and idiom he emulated and continued to develop in the deeply rooted conviction that he was capable of setting up a durable alternative to the ‘decadence’ of modern music. He had taken over this stance from his teacher Hugo Riemann, who inveighed against Liszt, Wagner and Bruckner and represented a conservative aesthetic that saw Beethoven as the peak of musical history. (Riemann was later to attack the modernist characteristics of his pupil Reger, which led to a lasting estrangement between them.) Thus Reger fell between the twin stools of modernism and conservatism—a conflict which he believed he could overcome by placing the emphasis on the technical aspects of composition. But in the light of the aesthetic convulsions of the pre-war era, which was ever eager for scandal (of the kind Strauss had so magisterially provoked with Salome) and made secessionism socially acceptable, his effortless mastery of his craft, tirelessly advertised by himself, appeared to send out the wrong message of bourgeois self-sufficiency. Reger criticized the music of Mahler and Strauss as extravagant, and could not and would not relate to Schoenberg’s path towards the emancipation of dissonance; by contrast, he gradually found himself drawn to modern French composers. As a result, in spite of all his outward successes in the German Empire, his music increasingly assumed the character of a consciously sought aesthetic and compositional opposition. He combined fidelity to the traditional genres, forms and techniques with the honing of an integrated musical language which may perhaps be best grasped through the concept of the ‘stream of sound’ (Klangstrom): over a firm tonal and contrapuntal basis, the prototype of which is the four-part chorale as perfected by Bach, it deploys extremely delicate chromatic colours and subtle metrical and rhythmic textures, timbrally enhanced by the trappings of the late Romantic orchestra. From the paradoxical yet captivating blend of Baroque-style counter­point, impressionistic orchestration, post-Wagnerian chromatic harmony and Brahmsian developing variation, Reger created formal solutions ranging between the extremes of lyrical introversion and exuberant narration. This, along with the enormous technical demands made by his music, ensured he relatively quickly attained the limits of the wider public’s capacity for understanding and acceptance.

Though his style was shaped by the piano and the organ (and he was famed as one of the most sensitive pianists of his time), Reger nourished the universal ambition to write for the most varied forces, interpreters, and categories of listeners. This may be seen in the wide range of works for the violin which run through his entire compositional career. He pointedly began his catalogue of published works in 1891 with the Sonata for violin and piano in D minor Op 1, which was to be followed by eight more sonatas, ending with the Sonata in C minor Op 139 (1915). And whereas his Bach-inspired works for unaccompanied violin of 1899 to 1914 (the Sonatas Opp 42 and 91 and the sets of Preludes and Fugues Opp 117 and 131a) adopt an intimate, monological tone of voice, the Two Romances for violin and small orchestra, written in 1900, were conceived, so to speak, as visiting cards for a big-city public. By having recourse to a favourite genre of bourgeois audiences, thereby following in the footsteps of Beethoven (they even share their opus number with the second of the latter’s two Romances, Opp 40 and 50), Bruch and Dvorák, he hoped to conquer the concert halls of the German Empire’s prosperous large cities. Composed when he was still living in his home town of Weiden, the Romances may be seen to a certain extent as prototypes for the Violin Concerto, since he was already testing in them a fusion of contrapuntal texture and flowing melody which determines the physiognomy of long stretches of the later work. And there may possibly be a slice of autobiography hidden in the effusive, wistful tone of the Romances: Reger dedicated the first to his then publisher Eugen Spitzweg, who managed the Munich firm of Aibl with his brother Otto and did much to promote the composer’s work; the second is inscribed to the Weiden physician Dr Berthold Rebnitzer, who twice rid Reger of neck ulcers that had plagued him during his years in Wiesbaden.

It is a large step from these two occasional works to the Violin Concerto in A major Op 101, composed in 1907 in parallel with the Variations and Fugue on a theme of J A Hiller, Op 100, and the Piano Trio, Op 102, and ‘worked out in his head’, as he proudly reported, during long railway journeys. The Concerto is a typical yet what might also be called tragic case of a ‘sleeping giant’ in Reger’s output. It is also the ‘Cinderella’ in the impressive series of solitary violin concertos from Beethoven’s Op 61 to Schoenberg’s Op 36. Reger wished above all to pay homage to, and at the same time go one better than, this German tradition, to which the last great contribution was in his view Brahms’s Violin Concerto. He accordingly emphasized to his publisher Hinrichsen that his concerto had

so to speak, a ‘Classical’ veneer for our time, that is, there is nothing ‘crazy’ in it—there are no technical ‘fripperies’ for the solo violin in it; but I set the greatest store on scoring it as ‘transparently’ as possible, so that the soloist, who is given a great deal of cantilena writing, can really ‘sing’ and doesn’t need to ‘scrape’! It goes without saying that my whole approach to style is a thoroughly symphonic one, of which Beethoven and Brahms have already given us in their violin concertos models that no one will ever be able to equal! […] I lay the main stress on vivid melody.

Remarkably enough, Reger ignores Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto here, while the reference to ‘transparent’ scoring betrays the influence of Mozart. He wanted his concerto to surpass those of his illustrious models in complexity and monumentality, but—in a dialectic of ‘anxiety of influence’ often to be observed in the history of music—he actually ended up to some extent achieving the contrary of the intended effect. For, despite the choice as tonic of the bright, overtone-rich key of A major and a readily comprehensible formal design, the concerto’s very wealth of ideas and overabundance of beauties go hand in hand with a loss of clarity of outline for the listener. Reger’s pride in the density of the motivic work, which could be demonstrated ‘down to the last little branch’, and the ‘plasticity of the themes, the expression, and the forms’ (as he says in another letter to the publisher) finds expression in the chiaroscuro of the sound-palette, at once its consequence and its contradiction.

Paradoxically, from Reger’s enormous efforts to create a coherent structure combining concertante and symphonic aspects, the essentially monological character of his music emerges all the more strongly, resulting in the virtual omnipresence of the solo instrument. In this respect the Violin Concerto intensifies one of the basic configurations of the great nineteenth-century violin concertos, the assertion of a single voice against a power­ful mass. There can be no other explanation of why Reger counters the respectively lyrical and meditative moods of the first two movements with a finale which is not only (as in the Piano Concerto) markedly optimistic and vital, but also involves the violin much more closely in the orchestral proceedings. This goes so far that the clear thematic reference to the finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto is ousted in the coda by a gesture unmistakably modelled on the conclusion to the same composer’s second Piano Concerto. The violin now ‘speaks’ with a different, almost boastful voice, but it remains an open question whether the gulf between the characters of the movements has not become unbridgeable.

The cantabile style of the violin part in the Romances, not coincidentally, recalls the ‘endless melody’ of Wagner. This also becomes the basis for the epic length of the Violin Concerto, which is an integral part of that work’s con­ception and enables it, along with the Piano Concerto of three years later, to take the place in Reger’s output of the symphony he never wrote. The two related principal themes of the Violin Concerto’s first movement—which lasts for no fewer than 642 bars and was originally even longer—are formally developed in accordance with the requirements of symphonic tradition. Through skilful transformations of the melodic and rhythmic substance, Reger disguises the formal constraints of concerto form (especially the duplication of the exposition and reprise) and places the huge virtuoso demands on the soloist in a functional relationship with the orchestral writing. The written-out solo cadenza harks back to Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, just as the key scheme—A major in the outer move­ments, B flat major in the central Largo—can be seen as a variant on the relinquishment of fifth relationships already observable in Beethoven. (That Reger chooses an interval of a semitone here instead of third relationships hints at a subliminal programmatic use of chromaticism as an expression of sorrow and suffering.)

Reger wrote the Violin Concerto for the French violinist Henri Marteau (1874–1934), who gave the first performance in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 15 October 1908, under the direction of Artur Nikisch. It was not only the music critics (with the exception of Arthur Smolian) who reacted unenthusiastically; violinists too found difficulty in coping with the piece. For instance, Carl Flesch suggested cuts to Reger, which the composer emphatically opposed: ‘No, that’s impossible. I have thought a great deal about it; the work is and remains a monster.’ He was therefore all the more delighted when Adolf Busch, then just sixteen years old, played him the concerto in a Cologne hotel on 28 January 1909 ‘with utterly beautiful tone and technique’. Busch continued to campaign vigorously for the Violin Concerto after Reger’s death; just how hard it was for the work to gain acceptance is shown by the fact that he was able to give the American premiere only in 1942, with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of his brother Fritz. However, Busch presented his own rescored edition of the work, justifying it with the following words, which seem almost disarmingly naïve to us today: ‘The concerto now takes less time than before (because it is clearer and many passages can therefore be played at the correct tempo).’ But this attempt to salvage the piece for the concert hall distorted—or destroyed—its meaning and character just as surely as Rudolf Kolisch’s arrangement for chamber orchestra did: though the latter does indeed make the interweaving contrapuntal textures trans­parent, it thereby sacrifices the independent existence of the sound they make. For, over and above its intellectual, compositional aspirations, the art of Reger remains a natural phenomenon, which can deploy its calm grandeur only in the simultaneity of line and colour, of structure and expression.

Wolfgang Rathert © 2012
English: Charles Johnston

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