Max Reger – The Romantic Bach? – splendid advocacy from Bruce Cash

The Triumphant Reger

Music by JS Bach, Wagner, Reger, Rheinberger and Hanff

Bruce Cash (speaker and organist)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul
Molesworth Street, Wellington

Friday 14th October 2016

This was the second of three lecture/recitals on the life and works of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916) by organist and choral conductor Bruce Cash. On the strength of this experience with the music of a relatively neglected composer, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the first of Cash’s presentations earlier this year, and will certainly go to the third one, scheduled for March 2017.

Fashions have a disconcerting habit of changing, in music as elsewhere; and after one listens to some of Reger’s work one can only conclude that his music seems to have, for certain reasons, simply fallen out of favour. Once this happens (as it has done to a number of composer) it can take  a long time for the process to be halted and reversed. One thinks first and foremost of Mahler, whose works were regarded for many years after his death as too long, too heavy, and not worth the trouble, opinions which became so widespread they achieved currency even among those who hadn’t heard any of his music. It took years of determined advocacy on the part of a few loyal interpreters to overcome this and restore the music to its rightful place in concert programmes.

Bruce Cash is one of those working thus for Max Reger, though it’s a formidable task, especially when one considers contemporary reviews of recordings of the composer’s music that begin thus: – “Like Grandma’s oatmeal, Reger is good for you in some unspecified way, but difficult to digest….” (from a review of the composer’s Clarinet Sonatas, Gramophone, June 2016). One doubts whether almost any reader would bother to investigate further, having encountered that opening sentence. Still, as with nutrition, there will always be a hard-nosed anti-establishment vein of suppport for alternatives to any mainstream activity, though whether Reger’s music deserves to remain consigned to those marginalised realms is a topic yet to be fully investigated.

His work has had its champions, both during his lifetime and for a period following his untimely death in 1916 at the age of forty-three. He was regarded by certain critics as the chief compositional rival to Richard Strauss – “…..Reger and Strauss, and no third in opposition”, wrote the respected American critic James G. Huneker during the early years of the 20th century, though there were parallel strands of opinion. For years I’ve enjoyed the well-known story of a composer responding to a scathing review of his music by way of informing the critic in question thus: “I am sitting in the smallest room in the house, and I have your review before me – in a moment it will be behind me”.  I’ve always thought the composer in question was Richard Strauss – but it seems, through dint of frequency of reference that it was actually Reger who was responsible for the caustic riposte.

In terms of industry Reger was tireless, producing a large amount of music for the organ (roughly a quarter of his output), solo piano works, chamber music and orchestral pieces, including a piano concerto, but not a symphony. His vocal music belongs to the same German Romantic tradition as Mahler, Strauss, Wolf and Zemlinsky, and includes lieder and choral works, though he didn’t venture into opera. Despite all of this, what still registers in the public mind regarding Reger’s music is his association with the organ, an instrument far less “mainstream” than was the case during the composer’s lifetime, and therefore contributing to his “marginalisation”.

Naturally, Bruce Cash’s presentation of Reger’s life and works essentially centered around his organ music, but emphasised its accessibiity and connection with the wider world of musical activity. He illustrated Reger’s youthful obsession with Wagner by commenting on the former’s realisation of the opening scene of Die Meistersinge as a kind of organ “Chorale Prelude”, a work Cash subsequently gave us in his recital that followed the talk. We heard of Reger’s association with Karl Straube (1873-1950), the prominent German organ virtuoso, to whom the composer entrusted the premieres of his later organ music. Straube, who was appointed organist of St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, followed even further in JS Bach’s footsteps by becoming Kantor of the Thomasschule, and his interpretations of Bach as both organist and conductor would have had an enormous effect upon the younger Reger.  During the programme Cash played a short Chorale Prelude by Johann Nicolaus Hanff (1663-1711) in the late Romantic style of playing favoured by Straube, by way of homage to the latter, “the master interpreter”.

So, having regaled us with this remarkable and fascinating almalgam of information concerning Max Reger, Cash then proceeded to play a magnificent recital of associated music written by the composer himself, along with pieces by Wagner, Rheinberger, the aforementioned Hanff, and JS Bach. Most appropriately he began with Wagner, a wonderful realisation of the opening of the opera “Die Meistersinger”, in effect a kind of Chorale Prelude – Cash’s playing I thought extremely effective, festive and atmospheric.

A number of Reger’s organ pieces followed, the first a set of Variations and a Fugue on “The English National Anthem” (“Heil unserm Konig, heil!). Reger was fond of structural forms such as that embodied in this piece – here, the theme itself was swirling and flamboyant (its discursiveness reminding me in places of Dohnanyi’s Prelude to the concertante work “Variations on a Nursery Tune”), though in other places charming. Then came the fugue, whose first voice was the theme itself verbatim, the subsequent lines more and more atttenuated, and the music’s progress working up to a stirring climax whose final resolution got enthusiastic applause! I liked, too, the Intermezzo Op.129 No.7 (1913), its mood wistful and exploratory, and its organisation in places throwing a fascinating variety of different timbres and colours into cheek-by-jowl relationships – the contrast between the deep pedal notes and the almost disembodied reedy harmonies was thrilling!

From the same Op.129, Nos 8 and 9 constituted a Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, the Prelude questioning at the beginning with an anxious, tense-sounding descending figure, volatile in its contrasting irruptions and somewhat Wagnerian in its explorations, before thrusting solidly upwards and outwards towards a great climax. The Fugue was, by contrast, wraith-like, with voices talking with one another in whispers, and supported by a Fafner-like pedal, as if the monster was slumbering within the pipes. It provided the greatest possible contrast to the searing opening of Reger’s last published work for organ, the Siegesfeier Victory Celebration of 1916, written in anticipation of a German victory in World War One, a real paean of triumphal expectation whose dashed hopes the composer was at least spared, dying as he did later that same year.

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), whose organ compositions were declared by the Grove Encyclopaedia of Music (1908) as “undoubtedly the most valuable addition to organ music since the time of Mendelssohn”, represented the more conservative strain of contemporary composition, the Intermezzo movement from his Organ Sonata Op.132 played here by Cash as a kind of context for Reger’s far more rigorous explorations. More to the point were the three different versions of the Chorale Prelude Ein’ Feste Burg ist unser Gott played by Cash, beginning with Reger’s own, and followed with the aforementioned Johann Nicolaus Hanff’s, and that by JS Bach himself. As has already been noted, Hanff’s version was included by Cash by way of a tribute to Karl Straube, here played and registered in an almost Gallic way, reedy, romantic and sentimental in feeling. Reger’s take on the piece used the full-blooded organ voice, all resplendent tones and big, up-front sounds, whereas Bach’s treatment sounded more matter-of-fact, the lines augmented by a decorative bass and voices sprouting spontaneously from the lines, rather like as from a single seed – I loved the organist’s variety of colours and timbres – breathy, nasal, resonant, sharp and mellow – leading towards a magnificent blending of these lines buoyed along by a surging, pulsating pedal note.

And finally, we were treated to Reger’s full-throated Chorale Fantasy Op.27 Ein’ feste Burg, written at about the age of 25 (Bach wrote his at the same age, incidentally). We were able to “track” the music’s progress via the organist’s programme-note, which included three of the hymn’s four verses, and described the work’s programmatic aspects, here most atmospherically and in places thrillingly realised by the playing. In short Bruce Cash’s committed advocacy seemed to my ears to do Max Reger’s cause more than ample justice throughout, and no more resplendently than with this final, spectacularly-presented work.


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