Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Largo con gran espressione
Movement 3: Allegro moderato (ma con spirito)
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.
from notes by Karol Rathaus © 2012
English: Charles Johnston