Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Reger Cello Works Alexandre Kniazev

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Alexandre Kniazev cello
Édouard Oganessian piano
Sonatas recorded Aulnay-sous-Bois 1997, rest recorded L'Église Saint-Marcel à Paris August 2008 and May 2009. Stereo DDD
Saphir Productions LVC 001103 [74:01+76:01+69:00]
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The works on these discs fall into three broad categories: short character pieces (many of them transcriptions), long, involved sonatas, and suites for solo cello. There is a certain unity of intent that unites all of Reger's work, but the overriding impression here is of contrast between the three groups. The short pieces are elegant and lyrical, light but never trivial. The sonatas, in contrast, are archetypal Reger, they are heavy, densely textured and, provided you are into Reger, among his most profound and deeply felt works. The solo cello suites balance this late Romantic existential angst with the economical style of Bach, which on paper might seem like a paradoxical combination, but which in practise turns out to be a very practical approach.
If the short works that begin the first disc seem surprisingly lyrical for Reger, that is because most are arrangements of his Op.76 set of lieder. We are very much in Brahms territory here, and like Brahms, Reger has no qualms about simplifying his harmonic style as the situation requires. Personally, I'm more a fan of Reger's heavier work, but this first half a disc or so provides a gentle introduction to the more meaty fare ahead. The playing is beautiful, and the lighter textures give both players a chance to really shine. Much of this music employs the higher register of the cello with just simple piano accompaniments beneath. The elegance of Alexandre Knaizev's tone in the upper register is the key factor in the success of these works, and his almost vocal sense of phrasing really helps to articulate the form of these short movements.
About half way through the first disc we meet the first of Reger's Cello Sonatas and immediately we are plunged into a darker and more troubled musical world. I'll confess that these works take some getting used to, but they repay, and deserve, repeated listening. They are psychologically turbulent in a way that many of Reger's German-speaking contemporaries (and I'm thinking particularly of the Second Viennese School) aimed for but only occasionally achieved. There are many moments of brief repose from the swirling textures, but these only emphasise the complexity and trauma of the surrounding music. The four sonatas span Reger's short creative career, the first has Opus 5 the last Opus 116, and they can really be heard as a progression. Intense drama is present from the first note of the First Sonata, but it isn't until the Third and Fourth Sonatas that Reger's approach to the genre crystallises.
Knaizev and Oganessian give excellent readings of these works. Almost every movement of each of the sonatas is long and complex, and for a interpretation to be a success, the players must immerse themselves and their audience into the soundworlds, which is exactly what happens. Most of the tempos are on the slow side, which may be in an attempt to provide clarity to the dense textures in the piano part, although that is surely a futile aim. But as with the shorter pieces earlier on, the structural shape is always secured by Knaizev's thoughtful and expansive approach to the phasing. And however much the players try to elucidate Reger's textures, there are always going to be passages where chaos reins. Unlike in the shorter works, Reger rarely separates the cello out by writing in its higher register. So it is often the case that dense, harmonically ambitious, contrapuntal textures in the piano run in parallel to mid or low range writing in the cello. To the players' credit, they don't try to fight it, and the gloomy, muddy textures that result have their own kind of inexplicable beauty.
If all that sounds a bit masochistic, relief comes in the form of some truly beautiful slow movements. They are not all exempt from Reger's megalomanic tendencies. In fact, they work best when they are at their most involved. For me, the highlight of this set is the largo third movement to the Op.116 Sonata. Here we have long, heartfelt melodies, played out over harmonically complex but texturally straightforward piano textures. Again, the performers take it slow, but their aim here is atmosphere rather than clarity. It comes in at almost 14 minutes, quite a contrast to the Gerhard Mantel/Erika Frieser recording of 1972 (Da Capo 77 503 – dreadful, avoid at all costs) which clocks in at 9 minutes. At this slower pace, Reger's many moments of repose have a dreamy, transcendental quality that really elevates proceedings.
There is little, if any, transcendence in the Cello Suites Op.131c. The model here (of course) is Bach, but the relationship with Bach's Cello Suites is complex. Reger occasionally veers towards outright pastiche or even quotation, but the music always remains distinctively Reger. Even with just one player, he still manages a sense of density, of expression rather than texture. The music could easily become leaden in lesser hands, but Knaizev really knows how to bring it to life. His technique is very 'Russian' in the sense that he creates an almost tactile quality to his sound. Everything is very definite, yet there is plenty of subtly, variation and nuance too. I doubt he would play Bach like this, or at least Bach's Cello Suites could struggle under the intensity of this approach. Not Reger though, he is able to withstand this intensity and focussed concentration. The Romantic reading highlights the stylistic distance between Reger and Bach, although the Bachian figurations still make the composer's allegiances clear.
On the whole, the sound quality is very good. I noticed one instance of peak distortion, on the last note of the Caprice in A minor. There is also some extraneous noise on the third disc, which may be Knaizev breathing. The textures on the second disc (Sonatas Three and Four) are more congested than elsewhere, but that is as much Reger's fault as anybody else's. I'm sure there are other ways of recording this music, using the technology to force a sense of clarity onto the music's complex, tangled webs. But by not doing so, the recording feels truer to Reger's often convoluted intentions, for better or worse.
The packaging is very stylish, and there is a funky abstract design printed on the front of each of the discs. The liner notes are informative, but it is clear that the three discs have previously been released individually, and that the notes have since been crudely conflated.
This is a highly recommendable set, thanks mainly to the sheer quality of the cello playing. But while I can recommend it on its own considerable merits, it is probably worth bearing in mind the competition. In recent years, the Sonatas have been recorded by Alban Gerhard and Markus Becker (Hyperion CDA67581/2) while the Suites have been recorded by Peter Wispelwey (Channel Classics CCS9596). Both have received glowing reviews, which given the usual prejudices in the English speaking world towards the composer is no small achievement. This release will, I suspect, undercut both of those in terms of price, so that may count in its favour. What a luxury though for Reger fans to be offered a choice of such fine performers for this hitherto scandalously neglected music!
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

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