The title of
this release sounds flippant, but it accurately reflects what the project’s
aims. The basis on the six-DVD set is a three-part documentary about the
composer’s life. This is supplemented by 12 hours of filmed performances, all
recorded specifically for the project. The aim here is to give a meaningful
overview of the composer and his work, a huge task given the quantity and
variety of his output. Though I’ve some minor qualms about the presentation
style, and most of the performances find themselves up against very stiff
competition, the result is a spectacular success, making the most of the
extended video time to explore almost every corner of the composer’s work.
there is a strong organ focus here. The label, Fugue State Films, specializes
in documentaries about organs and organ composers, and Will Fraser, the
director/producer/narrator/auteur behind the project is himself an organist.
But the recordings and the documentary also explore Reger’s chamber music,
songs, piano works, and orchestral music. The only major omission is his choral
music—secular, sacred, and liturgical—though fortunately this is
well-represented on CD elsewhere. In total, the filmed recordings here cover
one third of the Reger’s output, even if the organ music remains the primary
documentary is entitled “The Last Giant,” a reference to Hindemith’s
description of Reger as “the last giant in music.” It takes three and a half
hours to survey the composer’s life, which would seem an indulgence given that
he only lived 43 years. But, as the documentary makes clear, he packed a great
deal into that time, and, although composition was always his main focus, his
other musical activities had a crucial bearing on his work. One very
interesting angle here is the extent to which the different periods of Reger’s
career map onto his compositional style. His time in Munich (during which, we
are told, he was best known as an accompanist) gave rise to his most Modernist
music, as he attempted to establish himself as a leading light of the new
generation. Then, in Meiningen, where Reger conducted the Court Orchestra, he
was essentially a court subject, hence the more formal Neoclassical music of
that era. And then he left to live a quiet life (at least by his standards) in
Jena—hence the “Free Jena Style” of his last years. Much of the biographical
information here is otherwise completely unavailable in the English language
(though German-language Reger scholarship is robust), making this documentary
particularly valuable to Anglophone Reger enthusiasts.
mixes excerpts from performances and interviews with performers and scholars.
The primary source for biographical information is Professor Susanne Popp of
the Max-Reger-Institut in Karlsruhe. While obviously highly knowledgeable on
the subject, Popp is also warmly sympathetic to her subject. Nobody could claim
that Max Reger was perfect as a man, and his various inadequacies are given due
consideration, especially his alcoholism, which inevitably becomes a recurring
theme. Fortunately, though, everybody here takes him seriously; usually, any
time given over to discussion of Reger in English soon devolves into flippant
humour (admittedly much of it coined by Reger himself). Tellingly, not even the
concert review/toilet paper gag makes into this film, which is all to the best.
The survey of
Reger’s biography is mixed with in-depth discussion of the evolution of his
style. The main interviewees here are the organist Bernhard Haas, the conductor
Ira Levin, and the musicologist (also from the Max-Reger-Institut) Jürgen
Schaarwächter. Again, the depth of the discussion, combined with the fact that
the composer’s entire career is discussed, makes this very valuable. Bernhard
Haas, sitting at an organ console, gives a fascinating talk on the reasons why
Schoenberg and his followers considered Reger a radical: Haas takes a Reger
organ work and dissects the opening bars to demonstrate just how subversive the
use of tonality is. On the other hand, Reger’s inability to write convincing
melodies is also addressed. One fascinating insight, given in the first
episode, is that Hugo Riemann, the legendary teacher who would become Reger’s
mentor, initially turned him down as a student, on the ground that his music
was too focussed on harmonic innovation and that his melodies were contrived
simply to articulate the harmonic progressions. Riemann advised that Reger
write Lieder, to improve his melodic writing—and he did, writing hundreds over
the course of his career, but the problem remained.
the best of the filmed performances are the organ works. Reger, it soon becomes
apparent, had a masterful gift for choreographing the hands as they move around
a large organ console, with all the doublings, hand crossings, and finger
substitutions that this involves. Many of the organ performances here are
filmed from directly above the keyboard, often intercutting with a camera
positioned beneath to show the pedals, and the visual clarity that this offers
provides an invaluable guide for the listener to the intricacies of the
counterpoint. The recorded sound of the various organs—in Bremen, Chemnitz,
Ludwigsburg, Ulm, and Weiden—is good too, a testament, no doubt, to the
specialist organ-recording skills of the team.
performances are divided between three players, Bernhard Buttmann, Bernhard
Haas, and Graham Barber (Buttmann has recently recorded a complete Reger cycle
on the Oehms label, and Bernhard Haas appears on the complete cycle for Naxos).
All three give excellent performances, especially Haas, whose readings here are
more inspired than his single-disc contribution to the Naxos set. The fact that
he plays every work from memory is particularly impressive, as is the variety
of colours he draws from the various large-scale organs—his rendition of the
Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue in E Minor, op. 127, is a highlight.
Buttmann is similarly adept at keeping complex contrapuntal lines afloat, even
at the loudest dynamics (again, all the organists benefit from the excellent
recorded sound). Graham Barber seems a little more pedestrian, though this may
be because he is playing a smaller organ, at the Church of St. Michael in
Reger’s home town of Weiden.
chamber music gets impressive coverage, with excellent performances throughout.
The String Quartet No. 2, op. 54/2 (Aris Quartett), and the String Sextett, op.
118 (Diogenes Quartett + Roland Glassl and Wen-Sinn Yang) are rarities on disc,
yet both are pivotal works, so it is good to hear them given such fine
performances here. There is also a good selection of solo and accompanied
violin works, with the Suite in A Minor, op. 103a, a particular highlight,
performed by Katharina Wildermuth (violin) and Evgenia Rubinova
(piano)—Wildermuth is also the leader of the Aris Quartett who play the Second
String Quartet. The chamber works are divided between two recording venues, the
very stately Altes Rathaus in Weiden and a recording studio. The studio doesn’t
look as good, but the audio is far superior.
Frauke May is clearly a passionate advocate for Reger’s songs, many of which
she sings here, both with piano and orchestral accompaniment, as well as
discussing them at length in the documentary. Her delivery is very
Impressionistic, her tone meandering between the notes and the words barely
audible, but all this is in the spirit of the music, even if Iris Vermillion
has demonstrated, on CPO 9993172, that greater clarity of tone and articulation
also benefits these works.
orchestral songs, May performs with the WDR Funkhausorchester conducted by
Wayne Marshall. He is a curious choice, an excellent organist (no-doubt his
connection with this production team) but a hesitant conductor who doesn’t look
comfortable on the podium. By contrast, Ira Levin is in full command of the
Böcklin Tone Poems, op. 128, a fine performance from the Brandenburgisches
Staatsorchester, although it would benefit from larger string section. Curiously,
the programme also includes Levin’s own arrangement of Reger’s Bach Variations,
op. 81, the conductor doing a credible job of imitating Reger’s orchestral
style, not that it was one of his greatest strengths.
There is also
much solo piano music included, performed by Marcus Becker, Rudolf Meister,
Andrew Brownell, and Oliver Kern—fine performances all, though not competitive
with the best (Hamelin) and, as with the chamber music, divided between a
good-looking venue—a room overlooking Ulm Münster—and a better-sounding studio.
is de luxe, a card box with Jugendstil decoration, containing a foldout insert
accommodating the six DVDs and an 86-page book, everything pre-faded to give
the impression of appropriate antiquity. The navigation is eccentric and takes
some getting used to. All of the performances, even in the documentaries, are
preceded by just the opus number on the screen. To find further information,
the listener must consult the “Complete Opus List” in the booklet, which gives
full information, at least for the works included. The list itself feels like a
missed opportunity, because it could have been the first comprehensive list of
Reger’s works in English (bar the much abbreviated Grove entry). Sadly it is
neither complete nor in English. The list is in German (clearly the producers
are looking to Germany as a target market, very sensibly). More frustratingly,
the list only mentions the without opus works that are included in the
recording, missing out a great deal of significant music.
That said, the
information that is included in the booklet is very helpful, with the premiere
and publication dates for all the recorded works, an introduction from Will
Fraser, the contents of each disc (although this requires cross-referencing),
full registration lists for every organ, and full production credits and a list
of major sponsors.
us to the last and most astonishing aspect of this project, that it was made
possible by a crowdfunding campaign. Strict economies must have been excercised
to make this possible, but none are apparent in the finished product, which
seems as generously opulent as the music it celebrates. This has clearly been a
labour of love for Will Fraser, and no doubt for many of his colleagues too.
Reger fans owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and their numbers are only likely
to increase thanks to this excellent project.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 40:6.