Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 12 September 2016

Reger Sonatas for Solo Violin op. 42 Ulf Wallin

Max Reger: Four Sonatas for Solo Violin, op. 42
Ulf Wallin, violin
cpo 777 762-2 (57:16)

This release completes Ulf Wallin’s survey of the violin music of Max Reger, orchestral, piano accompanied, and solo. Despite strong competition, many of these recordings are the finest available, and the sonatas (with piano) in particular deserve recommendation for the vibrancy, range of tone color, and sheer interpretive imagination that Wallin projects.
The Four Sonatas for Solo Violin are less popular than Reger’s other solo violin cycle, the Preludes and Fugues, op. 117, which are now a staple of the repertoire. Wallin speculates, in his liner note, that this is due to the greater technical challenges posed by the op. 42 set. That’s a plausible theory, as this is clearly virtuoso repertoire. Double-stopping is the rule rather than the exception throughout most of the set, often with rhythmically independent contrapuntal lines. When the music is fast, as it often is in the outer movements, Reger makes no concessions in terms of note density or detail in his articulation and bowing. And through all this, he also expects vibrancy, energy, and, lightness: the Allegro markings of the first movements are qualified energico, con grazia, and con brio.
The influence of Bach is never far from the surface, yet the music rarely feels neo-Baroque. In the later Preludes and Fugues, Reger seems more intent of inhabiting Bach’s soundworld, whereas here the influence is mostly confined to technical features. Occasionally, as in the opening of the First Sonata, we hear a gesture that could have come straight from Bach, but then in the answering phrase, where we might expect imitation then sequences, we instead hear more elaborate, and usually longer, phrase development. The implied harmonies are adventurous too, which, combined with the almost continuous multiple-stopping, creates a soundworld firmly rooted in the late-Romantic virtuoso tradition.
Wallin’s performances are, as ever, close to ideal. He brings an ideal sense of impulsive energy to the faster music, always rhythmically incisive but never weighed down by the music’s complexity or the demands of the multiple-stopping. The slow second movements all sing, and flow with a rubato that is sometimes quite extreme but that never feels indulgent. The recorded sound conveys the ambience of a resonant venue, but with the violin up-close. That can make the upper register sound abrasive at times, but hardly to a fault—this isn’t easy listening. An excellent conclusion, then, to a superlative, and to my knowledge unique, survey of Reger’s complete violin works. The works for solo violin are clearly landmarks in the history of the form, and while the Preludes and Fugues are likely to remain the more popular, for the fewer demands they make on both performer and listener, the Sonatas demonstrate a higher level of innovation and textural subtlety, all of which is compellingly conveyed here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Reger: Works for Two Pianos. Piano Duo Trenkner-Speidel

Max Reger
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of W. A. Mozart, op. 132a
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Ludwig van Beethoven, op. 86
Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue, op. 96
MDG 330 0756-2 (79:58)

These three pieces represent Reger’s complete music for two pianos. The Mozart Variations (1915), based on the theme from the A-Major Piano Sonata, K 331, are better known in the earlier orchestral version from which Reger made the two piano arrangement. They are representative of his late style, as contrapuntal as ever, but with clearer textures and more open harmonies than in his earlier music, as represented by the other two works here. The Beethoven Variations (1904) are based on the Bagatelle, op. 119/11, and are more involved, although structural clarity is maintained through the clear contrast between each of the short movements. Typically for Reger, each set ends with a large-scale fugue, as does the third work, the Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue, op. 96 (1906). This piece is more in the spirit of Reger’s organ music, the counterpoint unfolding in long, flowing lines, here skillfully distributed between the two players. The liner note, by Gabriele Gafäller, tells us that the three works were among the composer’s most popular in his lifetime, a result of their accessible style, and despite the challenges they pose to the performers.
The release is a reissue, on the MDG Gold imprint, of a recording made in 1998, presumably now reappearing for the centennial anniversary of the composer’s death. Pianists Evelinde Trenker and Sontraud Speidel give attractive and unfussy performances, not overly dramatic, but with suitable contrast between the variations and excellent clarity for the contrapuntal lines. The liner says of the instrumentation “Steinway D Grand Piano from 1901,” which presumably means two such pianos of the same vintage. Technically, then, these are period instrument performances, a fact most obviously apparent at the registral extremes, with the higher notes sounding a little boxy and the bass somewhat constrained.
At least a two other versions of these works are currently available, so the choice of pianos here many be the deciding factor, for or against. But the recordings make an excellent case for the music, which, despite its initial popularity isn’t really from Reger’s top draw, or at least, it lacks the cutting-edge harmonic progressions and adventurous compositional outlook of his most interesting work. Typically for MDG, this reissue is as elegantly packaged and presented as the original. The tracking is curious; each variation set is presented as two tracks, the first with the theme and variations and the second with the fugue, though the scale of both fugues justifies the treatment. A positive notice then, but not an enthusiastic recommendation. I notice that the same duo later went on to record Reger’s arrangements of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, another interesting curiosity, no doubt, that may also be due a reissue.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Max Reger for Guitar Laura Young

REGER (arr. Young)
Preludes and Fugues for Solo Violin, op. 117/3; op. 131a/3. Sonata for Solo Violin, op. 42/1. Suites for Solo Cello, op. 131a/3; op. 131c/1 
Laura Young, guitar
GRAMOLA 99072 (56:05)

Reger for guitar? The idea seems perverse at best, until you look closer at the program. It turns out that all of the works here are for solo violin or cello, and all are from the neo-Baroque end of Reger’s stylistic spectrum. The results fit comfortably in the tradition of Bach cello suites arranged for guitar, and while the music is a bit more adventurous harmonically, guitarist Lara Young does a good job of convincing us that the music fits naturally under her fingers.
Which isn’t to say it is easy. She her liner note, Young writes of the violin music “This is extraordinarily difficult technically because of the music’s density  and content, which demand great commitment, energy and emotional expression from the performer.” That certainly characterizes her approach, and, unlike most violinists and cellists approaching this repertoire, Young makes no attempt to play this in a Baroque style. The guitar tone is full and round (as is the acoustic), phrases are broadly and liberally shaped, and a hint of vibrato is evident on the longer notes. As with Bach on the modern guitar, a case could be made for treating this as lute music, but that is not Young’s goal.
Reger’s melodic lines are often longer and more chromatic than Bach’s, but Young has the nimble fingers and interpretive focus to bring them off. The preludes of the two violin preludes and fugues, opp. 117/3 and 131a/3, both benefit from her lightness of touch. Conversely, the fugues that follow in both works maintain their contrapuntal integrity thanks to her flowing legato lines. The other violin work, the First of the op. 42 Solo Sonatas, is more complex and not as strictly neo-Baroque. Here, Young must distinguish main melodic lines from accompaniments and subsidiary themes, which she does with excellent clarity. In all these works, the guitar’s ability to resonate longer than the violin benefits the voice-leading, although this must also be a result of Young’s careful control. It makes for a completely different character to this music though, much more modern, and occasionally jarringly Spanish, at least to my ear.
The cello works that conclude the program, the First and Third Solo Suites from op. 131, pose different challenges. Reger often indulges in broad quadruple-stopped chords, and while these are more easily performed (presumably) on the cello, the effect is very different—real rather than suggested harmonies. On the other hand, Reger’s use of the gutsy tone of the cello’s lower strings transfers well to the guitar, and Young digs into bass lines, particularly in the finale of the First Suite, and the result has plenty of impact. She also achieves an impressive density of tone in the mid-register, for instance in the Third Variation of the Third Suite’s finale, and without compromising clarity of line.
Technically, then, this recording is an impressive achievement. But as a listening experience, the whole enterprise is very distant from the original works. That is, of course, partly a result of the instrument substitution, but equally of Young’s interpretive approach, treating this as purely 20th-century music and playing down its debt to Bach. That can feel exploitative, but the performances all work on their own terms. More valuable as an addition to the guitar catalog, in other words, than as a new perspective on Reger. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:2

Friday, 19 August 2016

Reger Songs Bevan Martineau

REGER Mein Traum, op. 31/5.Unbegehrt, op. 31. Flieder, op. 35/4. Volkslied, op. 37/5. Glückes genug, op. 37 No 3. Zwischen zwei Nächten, op. 43/1. Meinem Kinde, op. 43/3. Wiegenlied, op. 43/5. Sag es nicht, op. 43/8. Am Dorfsee, op. 48/6. Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben!, op. 51/3. Zwei Gänse Zur weißen Gans sprach einst vertraulich eine graue, op. 55/8. Viola d'amour, op. 55. Waldseligkeit, op. 62/2. Sehnsucht, op. 66/1. Morgen!, op. 66/12. Kindergeschichte, op. 66/12. Aeolsharfe, op. 75/11. Hat gesagt - bleibt's nicht dabei, op. 75/12. Du meines Herzens Krönelein, op. 76/1. Volkslied aus Franken – Waldeinsamkeit, op. 76/3. Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4. Glück, op. 76/16. In einem Rosengärtelein, op. 76/18. Des Kindes Gebet, op. 76/22. Die Mutter spricht, op. 76/28. Das Wölklein, op. 76/33. Mittag, op. 76/35. Schelmenliedchen, op. 76/36. Mariä Wiegenlied, op. 76/52. Mausefangen, op. 76/58. Oben in dem Birnenbaum, op. 76/59. Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe!  

Sophie Bevan (sop); Malcolm Martineau (pn)   

As his anniversary year draws to a close, a disc exploring yet another huge but neglected area of Max Reger’s catalog. Reger wrote almost 300 songs, spanning his career. On the evidence of this sampling—a generous 33 Lieder on a well-filled disc—the form brought out the best in him. The composer’s sense of humor is often in evidence. There is atmosphere, and sometimes melancholy, too, but generally these follow on more from the lighter end of Schumann’s song output than from the dour offerings of Brahms.
Reger’s desire to keep up with his times is demonstrated in his choices of texts, and most of the lines set here are by poets of his era. Richard Dehmel (1863–1920), of Strauss and Schoenberg fame, is the only name familiar to me, but other poets include Anna Ritter (1865–1921), Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865–1910), Detlev von Liliencron (1844–1909), Gustav Falke (1853–1916), and Oskar Wiener (1873–1944). The mood veers between the upbeat and the dreamy, the former most often in folksong-like texts (always suitably rendered by Reger), the latter in nocturnes and lullabies, which make up a significant proportion of the program.
Soprano Sophie Bevan is a rising star in the UK, and rapidly becoming a stalwart at both the Royal Opera and ENO. While she is clearly at home on the opera stage, this is apparently her first Lieder recording, and it bodes well. Her tone is rich, her phrasing supple, and her German idiomatic. Reger always poses challenges, though, for any performer, and some of the high and loud passages, in Zwischen zwei Nächten, op. 43/1 and Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4, threaten the evenness of her tone. Bevan also has occasional tuning problems in the lower register, most noticeably in Das Wölklein, op. 76/33. But in general, this music is ideal for her voice—just listen to the sheer agility that she brings to Schelmenliedchen, op. 76/36, perfect!
Malcolm Martineau is a sensitive but not unduly reticent accompanist. Typically, Reger writes piano lines that are note-heavy and often independent of the solo line, but are formulated with such skill that they never sound dense and always complement the sung line … or so they always sound under Martineau’s skilled fingers.
At present, the competition in this repertoire is slim, a recital on CPO by Iris Vermillion and Peter Stamm from 2000 (9993172) and another by Frauke May and Bernhard Renzikowski on Arte Nova (750760). Both are sung by mezzos, and the overlap with the present program is limited to a few numbers in each case. I haven’t heard the Renzikowski, but comparison between Vermillion and Bevan shows both to be fine Regerians. But Bevan is graced with better, more immediate, recorded sound (the recording was made at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley) and a more imaginative accompanist in Malcolm Martineau.
Nevertheless, both recordings are well-worth hearing, and especially the one at hand. Many labels have committed their valuable resources to Reger’s music in recent years, but none with more dedication than Hyperion. This release is as fine as any from them, well programmed and well performed, with comprehensive notes and full texts and translations. Recommended.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 40:2.