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Friday, May 2, 2014

Max Reger, Orchestral Works, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, 3-CD Set

There is something enigmatic about Max Reger (1873-1916). Part of it no doubt surrounds his rather vast output as a composer, works in all sizes, shapes and varieties. That and the fact that he died rather young, not reaching his mid-forties before succombing in 1916. Of course this has happened before--to Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn, none of whom we find enigmatic in the obvious sense.

But Reger was on the very cusp of a major revolution in that the modernist sensibilities of the age had yet to set themselves up in any cohesive all-encompassing way when he passed. Whether he would have taken major steps in that direction will never be known. But the Reger we are fortunate enough to have left to us and posterity is nonetheless a towering figure with at least two sides to him. One the unabashed romantic, the other a neo-classicist before that term was in vogue. His chamber pieces that owe something to the example of Bach, such as the unaccompanied violin sonatas, come to mind for the latter.

It may be that I just have not pursued the possibility over the years, but I must say I have not familiarized myself with his orchestral works to any great extent. So I was glad to get a review copy of the new 3-CD set by Leif Segerstam and the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra performing selected Orchestral Works (BIS 9047 3-CDs). During his lifetime these were at least in part the works that made his very positive reputation in Europe. And so I have immersed myself in the three disks for several weeks now and emerge to give my impressions.

There are seven major works represented on the set, far more than one can digest in a short timespan, and so I will not attempt a blow-by-blow analysis. What strikes me throughout however is his original voice. The strictly romantic works, such as his Piano Concerto in F minor, op. 110 do not sound derivative. He is fully inventive and structurally rigorous there. But it is the neo-classic influenced works that especially intrigue me, the "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, op 86" and his "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, op. 132" that especially get my attention.

They somehow manage to synthesize the late romantic fullness of feeling with the need to create and re-create inventions with the structured sensibilities of the earlier composers.

All in all however there is much to appreciate, from the flourish and passion of "Vier Tondichtungen nach Arnold Bocklin, op 128" to the lyrical sensuousness of "Suite im Alten Stil, op 93".

Here is where Max Reger was in his full development. We may regret that he did not live to achieve a complete synthesis of where he was headed, but we get nicely performed versions of some formidable music.

If you want a good idea of the orchestral mastery of the fully mature Max Reger, here is where you will find it. It is music to hear repeatedly, to study fruitfully in depth by close listening.

And so I do recommend this one highly.

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