Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Largo con gran espressione
Movement 3: Allegretto con spirito
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.
from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2011