Classical Music Review: New Releases

Max Reger - String Quartet in E flat major & Clarinet Quintet in A major.  String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 109; Clarinet Quintet in A major, Op. 146.  Vogler Quartett Berlin; Karl Leister, cliarinet.  Nimbus CD NI 5644 (71'50).

Max Reger (1873 -1916), like Feruccio Busoni, had the misfortune to be born too late to be a Romantic but too early to be a full-blown modernist.  Like Busoni, he was one of the first composers to cite JS Bach as a primary influence.  Schoenberg and his disciples studied Reger's music assiduously.  Writing to Alexander Zemlimsky in 1922 Schoenberg said, "I consider him a genius."

With the benefit of hindsight, one can detect a transitional quality to Reger's music.  The themes he uses are rooted in 19th century tonality, "traditional to the point of blandness," to quote John Williamson's exemplary liner notes.  What fascinated Schoenberg was Reger's use of extreme chromaticism in developing his conventional material.  This, coupled with an intensely contrapuntal treatment, gave the music a feeling of anarchy (Schoenberg, of course, knew differently).  At his wildest, in his organ music for example, Reger's music has a polyphonic density that sounds uncomfortably muddy.  Listening to it one is never quite certain which voice one is following.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, however, presents Reger at his best.  The string quartet was an ideal form for Reger, the relatively uncluttered textures and the varied voices of the strings keep the polyphony from getting overcrowded in one register.  This is especially notable in the finale, which contains one of Reger's most splendid fugues.   The quartet also tones down the chromaticism.  It was written for the Bohemian String Quartet shortly after they joined Reger in a performance of Brahms' Piano Quintet (however, the first performance was given by the Frankfurt String Quartet on 27 June 1909).  The Bohemian String Quartet stressed the equal partnership of all players, standard practice nowadays, but something of a radical break from the tradition of the quartet acting "as a foil for the dominant first violinist, such as had been the case above all in the Joachim Quartet," to quote Carl Flesch.  In contrast, the Bohemians "performed as equal partners with unheard-of intensity, freshness, and technical perfection made in heaven."

The Clarinet Quintet in A was Reger's last completed work (something of an alcoholic, he died of heart failure at the age of 43).  Set in the same key as Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, it quotes from Brahms' Clarinet Quintet at several points.  Although classed as a "late Romantic," Reger's music often has the emotional ambivalence of Hindemith.  Yet this piece has an intensely moving lyricism; it seems to inhabit the same twilight world as the Brahms.  The themes played by the clarinet have a similar shape: a quickly rising figure followed by a slower falling cadence.  Reger's transitional music reinforces the elusive feel of the piece: harmonically diffuse and unsettled, but equally undramatic, the Wagnerian storminess replaced by a wistful yearning.  Even the quicker passages never escape the overall languor.

Both these pieces dispel the cliché that Reger is a composer of great technical mastery but little emotional reach.  It is true that one does not find the grand gestures of a Tchaikovsky in Reger's music, but in an age that finds such gestures naïve perhaps that is not the liability it once was.

Tony Gualtieri
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