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Reger, Max (1873-1916)

Max Reger

born: 19 March 1873
died: 11 May 1916
country: Germany

The image of Max Reger as a composer of long, tortuously chromatic, over-elaborate polyphonic extravaganzas dies hard. But in his amazing fertility he also produced many pieces which show, on the one hand, his passionate commitment to Germanic Romanticism, and on the other the neo-Classical, indeed neo-Baroque vein of inspiration that made him such an important forerunner of Paul Hindemith. Reger was born in Brand, Bavaria, in 1873, the son of a schoolmaster. He gained his first musical education from his parents and from the town organist at Weiden (where he himself became organist at the age of thirteen), then went on to study under the great pedagogue Hugo Riemann. After a series of teaching and organ appointments in Munich, Leipzig and Jena, in 1911 he became music director at the court of Meiningen, where there was a famous touring orchestra; the Brahms tradition was still strong there, and one of Reger’s predecessors had been Hans von Bülow. However, Reger’s health was frequently poor (and aggravated by his heavy drinking). In the summer of 1914 he had to resign from Meiningen and returned to Jena, but he continued also to teach at Leipzig, where he died in 1916, aged forty-three. Despite this comparatively short life he left an immense output. Reger was an amazingly prolific composer (he had reached opus 100 by the age of thirty-four), writing multitudinous organ works and chamber music, as well as music for piano, for orchestra and for voices. His personal idiom evolved in the shadow of Brahms, and vastly developed the archaizing strain—the yearning towards strict Baroque contrapuntal forms—that had been present in Brahms’s make-up. Yet at the same time he was greatly influenced by the complex chromaticism and motivic writing of Wagner, and by his slightly older contemporary Richard Strauss. Towards the end of his life he showed an interest in Impressionism, and was moving towards a neo-Classical stance that would probably have served him well had he survived into the 1920s. In general, however, though his works’ actual expressive import usually identifies with Classical form and traditional Baroque clarity and serenity, Reger’s technical means and vocabulary (a daunting combination of advanced polyphonic techniques with ripe, perhaps overripe, and tonally unstable harmony) mark him out as a child of his time.

from notes by Calum MacDonald ©


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