Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Reger Complete Organ Works Naxos

Max Reger: Complete Organ Works
Performed by Bernard Haas, Ludger Lohmann, Josef Still, Hans-Jürgen Kaiser, Stefan Frank, Martin Welzel, Edgar Krapp, Christian Barthen, Kirsten Sturm, Wolfgang Rübsam
NAXOS 8.501601 (16 CDs)
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An impressive achievement here from Naxos, and a vindication of the label’s ambition to make comprehensive recordings of important repertoire. Max Reger seems doomed to a niche status at best, at least in the English-speaking world, but there is some wonderful music here, much of it very well played, that deserves a far wider audience.
Despite its integral status, this release is in fact a boxed-up collection of recordings originally released between 1996 and 2014. Even the original packaging is retained, giving an overview of how Naxos covers have changed over the years. The first five volumes are described as belonging to the label’s “Organ Encyclopaedia” series, although the sheer profusion of Naxos organ since makes such explicit claims to encyclopaedic status all but redundant. In terms of performers and instruments, it is very much a collective effort, the organists:
Bernard Haas, Ludger Lohmann, Josef Still, Hans-Jürgen Kaiser, Stefan Frank, Martin Welzel, Edgar Krapp, Christian Barthen, Kirsten Sturm, Wolfgang Rübsam.
And the organs:
The Link Organ, Evangelical Church, Giengen an der Brenz, Germany
The Great Organ of Fulda Cathedral (Rieger-Sauer), Germany
Johannes Klais Organ, Trier Cathedral, Germany
Passau Cathedral Organ (Eisenbarth, 1981), Germany
Sandtner Organ, St Martin’s Cathedral, Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany
Steinmeyer Organ (1911), Christuskirche, Mannheim, Germany
E.M. Skinner Organ, Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, USA
This scattergun approach may have been the result of practical concerns, but it provides welcome variety, both in terms of the interpretive approaches of the players and the timbral qualities of the instruments. There doesn’t seem to be much connection between the scale of an individual piece and the properties of the instrument chosen to play it on, but that’s fine; Reger’s organ music generally responds well to large, modern, German-sounding instruments, as all of these are. Most of the organs were built in the 20th century, and all are big. Four manuals is the norm, with a registration list (given with every disc) that fills at least a page of the booklet. The largest of them are the Passau Cathedral Organ and the Rockerfeller Memorial Chapel Organ (in Chicago, the only one not in Germany), and in both cases an extra dimension of power is always apparent. The Rockerfeller is a particularly impressive instrument, a very clean, direct sound, the sheer power never compromising the tone or balance. But my favourite among these organs is the 1974 Klais at Trier Cathedral. It too has impressive clarity – as played by Josef Still – and a real feeling of power, despite a fairly modest registration. But there is also a lot of character to this instrument – warmth, richness and timbral complexity that makes its tone endlessly fascinating. The Passau and Fulda Cathedral organs sound a bit old and wheezy by comparison, but all are fine instruments, and well-suited to the repertoire. 
The collective nature of the enterprise invites comparison between the players. The first two volumes are both played on the Link Organ at Giengen an der Brenz, the first by Bernard Haas and the second by Ludger Lohmann. Lohmann finds far more colour and variety in the instrument, making this second volume (opp. 127, 129 and 135a) one of the highlights of the series. Reger expects much of his performers in terms of decisions on rubato, dynamics and swell, and all of the players here offer imaginative interpretations. He also poses continual dilemmas about the balance between atmosphere, heft, and contrapuntal clarity, dilemmas that here involve the sound engineers as much as the players themselves. But again, appropriate solutions are always found, usually by tipping the balance slightly one way or the other. A typical programme for a single disc here will open with a large-scale single work, a prelude and fugue or similar, before moving on to a cycle of smaller pieces: character pieces or chorale preludes. Clarity of line is achieved throughout, but is really prioritised in the quieter works.
The repertoire itself is satisfyingly varied, although the quality and interest varies. Highlights from the larger scale works include the Fantasia and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H, op. 46, Variations and Fugue on ‘Heil, unsern König Heil’ (i.e, God Save the Queen), and the Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, op. 57, elsewhere described, although not here, as the “Inferno Fantasie”. Some of these concert works are truly colossal, the Introduction Passacaglia and Fugue in E Minor, op. 127, times in at 28:18, and the Introduction, Variations and Fugue in F-sharp Minor, op. 73, at 37:13. Both fully justify their durations though, through a combination of adventurous harmonic progressions and continually inventive contrapuntal intrigue. On the other hand, the suites and sonatas (two of each), which are on a similar scale, often get bogged down in generic and formal convention and can be a slog, despite impressive advocacy here from Frank, Barthen and Sturm.
The shorter, and usually quieter, works are generally a more inviting proposition. Sets like the Seven Organ Pieces, op. 145, and the Twelve Pieces, op. 65, offer variety and contrast, and even energy and rhythm, without overly involved counterpoint and development. The chorale preludes take up a large proportion of this collection, dominating volumes 2, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15. But here too there is much variety and interest. One of Reger’s big failings was his inability to write memorable tunes, so having famous Lutheran chorales underlying the counterpoint (arguably his greatest strength) in each of these works to his advantage. So too does the fact that so many different organists are assigned the chorale preludes, each bringing different ideas about texture and colour. As a result, the chorale preludes, which might otherwise risk monotony over their many hours, become another highlight of the collection.
This set is one of four complete cycles of Reger’s organ music currently available or soon to be completed. The hundredth anniversary of Reger’s death falls in 2016, which may explain some of the recent interest in his work from recording companies. The other three cycles are each executed by a single performer, no doubt bringing coherency of interpretation, although at the expense of the variety that makes this cycle so attractive. The strongest of the three competitors is Bernhard Buttmann on Oehms. His cycle is being released as four four-disc boxes, one a year with the last appearing in 2016 to coincide with the anniversary. Buttmann uses different organs – on the third volume each disc is played on a different instrument - but the audio quality seems to be equally high throughout. That said, the Oehms engineers are at a pains to bring up the pedal sound, giving the bass impressive presence but losing some of its focus. Buttmann’s interpretations are certainly impressive though, not least for the manual dexterity he brings to Reger’s complex counterpoint. A cycle by Rosalinde Haas on MDG gives another perspective on Reger’s music. She plays the Albiez-Organ at Frankfurt/Main-Niederrad, continually choosing narrow registration mixes for focussed, if underpowered, sounds. Clarity of line is her overriding concern, and Reger’s counterpoint has never sounded clearer. But her tempos are almost always way above the norm. Her rendition of the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, op. 46, for example, comes in under 14 minutes, where Buttmann and Hans Jürgen Kaiser on this cycle are both around 20. That may explain how Haas manages to squeeze her cycle onto 12, rather than 16, discs, although the discrepancy also suggests some omissions. Finally, there is a cycle, I assume it is ongoing as only nine volumes are available, from Roberto Marini on the Fugatto label. He too uses a range of different organs, including the one at Fulda Cathedral featured on this cycle and Bruckner’s organ at St. Florian. From the little I’ve heard, Marini gives dramatic accounts, with more rubato than on other cycles, but the sound quality doesn’t match any of the competitors.
The Naxos or Oehms cycles would therefore seem to be the top choices. The variety offered by this Naxos cycle is one of its greatest strengths, even if the inspiration behind the performances is one of the factors that vary. But the sound quality is consistently good, and the vast majority of the music here is well worth hearing. Hopefully strong sales of this set will encourage further exploration of Reger’s music by Naxos. A similar box set of his chamber music (which runs to 23 volumes on the frustratingly deficient Da Camera Manga set) would be welcome indeed.

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