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.


Close Encounter with Dvorak – Richard Gill and the NZSO break it down….

Close Encounters – NZSO breaks it down

Richard Gill (conductor and presenter)

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Friday, August 20th (Dvorak – Symphony No.9 “From the New World”)

(Review also by Julia Wells)

Australian conductor Richard Gill runs a series of educational-cum-entertainment programmes with the Sydney Symphony, called “Discovery”, making classical music more approachable for people who perhaps haven’t had musical backgrounds or previous exposure to what’s commonly called  “classical” music. He recently brought this idea to Wellington, working with the NZSO over two evenings and concentrating on two of the most popular symphonies in the whole of the classical music repertoire, Bethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony on the first night and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony the following evening. I attended the second of the two evenings, devoted to the Dvorak Symphony, and enjoyed it immensely on a number of counts, the first being that I was re-acquainted with a work I had previously heard so many times I thought I’d gotten tired of the music, and fell in love with it all over again!

Many people will recall those early television programmes featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic presenting a series called “Young People’s Concerts”. Richard Gill’s brief was different in that his presentation was designed for a much greater age-range of people, perhaps more specifically adult- than child-oriented, though his out-going, easeful manner and the direct, uncomplicated style of his delivery made what he was saying readily accessible to children of about ten years and over. Of course, it’s many years since I saw and heard Bernstein’s television broadcasts, so comparisons are even more irrelevant – but without having quite the charisma of Bernstein, I thought Richard Gill a charming, personable and informative guide, one who took pains to emphasise that we were entitled to think what we liked about the music that we heard, and let our own intelligent imaginations work on the sounds and come up with their own valid impressions. For many people I’m sure this would have been something of a revelation, quite a liberating and empowering attitude with which to approach this “thing” called  “classical music”.

Gill had the inestimable advantage of working with the NZSO, whose playing he praised highly at the conclusion of the evening, calling the band a “national treasure” and imploring his audience to support the orchestra “by buying lots of tickets to its concerts”. Throughout the evening the rapport between conductor and players seemed excellent, judging from the quality of the playing, a couple of ensemble slips apart, which could have been put down to the “stop-go” nature of the demonstration – when it came to the performance of entire movements, the playing was of an excellent standard throughout.  I myself would have thought, however, that the music would have been better served had the orchestra played the entire symphony, for people to get the range and sweep of the whole, and for the players to be able to generate something of what was understandably lacking in the performance – a sense of line which would have resulted in greater rhythmic character in places and even better-defined episodes along the way. Overall, the conductor’s stop-go analysis of the work needed, I think, to coalesce into some kind of fruition by the end, and the concert’s format was in many ways the ideal platform on which to do this. However, opinions concerning the purpose and scope of the presentation will vary; and certainly people will have at least come away from Gill’s presentation with a better understanding of the origin and nature of this, one of the most famous of all symphonies.

The true star of the evening was probably the NZSO’s cor anglais principal, Michael Austin; and it was Richard Gill who facilitated the limelight to which he subjected this normally self-effacing player. The conductor began his analysis of the symphony with the Largo (for so many people, the ‘way into”  this symphony), and asked Michael Austin to come forward and take a concerto soloist’s prominence, so that people could watch as well as hear him play. The player’s tone and his phrasing of the famous tune was exemplary, truly lump-in-the-throat stuff for at least one listener; and the orchestral accompaniment had that hushed, concentrated quality that’s so easily given scant attention, but appreciated all the more when, as was done here, broken into its constituent parts and analysed. As anybody knows who tries to play on a piano or any other instrument transcription of a well-known piece of classical music, the art of composition is often one which conceals art; and Gill was able to alert us as to the extent of Dvorak’s artistic achievement in creating those sounds that over-familiarity often leads us to take for granted.

Gill made many interesting and entertaining observations during his presentation – some of which had the orchestra players laughing out loud along with his audience – rounding out the nature and context of Dvorak’s most famous Symphony, talking about the composer’s American connections, the influence of Wagner’s music on the symphony and the ultimate faith Dvorak had in the more “classical” examples for composers set by people such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Gill touched briefly on what I thought was a very important point, one that he could have developed and cited elsewhere in the symphony, the use of recurring motifs throughout the work, a practice that, of course scholars and traditionalists of the time frowned on, as it contravened “the classical rules” – we were told that Dvorak was considered as “showing off” in doing this by the music establishment, which was a nice way of putting it. Gill talked a lot about the music’s “Czech” character, intending to put into perspective the ideas that were held for many years held about this symphony, that the tunes were American Negro or Indian melodies which the composer was either quoting or copying. A pity nothing from the work’s Scherzo was played, a brilliant demonstration of both the composer’s use of national Czech dance-forms and his fondness for cross-rhythms.

However much I thought that the overall approach to the work was a little chaotic in terms of its analysis, my own experiences of getting to know new music bore out Richard Gill’s way with his presentation – often there’s a single idea, either melodic or rhythmic, that for some reason impinges in the memory of the listener, resembling a seed around which the rest of the organism gradually takes shape. After all, the purpose of the evening’s presentation was to facilitate this very process, in fact to fulfil the conductor’s own stated dictum that “this music is abstract art – it isn’t ABOUT anything concrete, but depends entirely for its effect on the listener’s very individual reaction to the sounds used by the composer” – or words to that effect. I was sorry that I’d missed the previous evening’s analysis of the Beethoven symphony, and can only congratulate Richard Gill and the members of the NZSO for giving us such a delightful and resonating musical experience.

As if to further ‘validate” the event’s degree of communication between performers and audience, I asked eighteen year-old Julia Wells, a piano student and first-year tertiary student, who also attended the concert, for her impressions; and received the following evaluation of the experience:

“Overall I found the performance very enjoyable. There was a good balance between Richard Gill’s discussion of the music and the actual performance, although at times I felt like hearing slightly more of the actual piece. My favourite part was his demonstration of the layering of sounds in the orchestra. He brought out the difference of sound when the flute combined with the oboe and the effect of them combining with brass instruments. This was shown most clearly in the second movement, which I thought was the strongest part of the presentation. One thing I would have liked more of was contextual information – Gill’s comments on the work’s reception, and also about Wagner’s influence on Dvorak, were interesting; and I would have appreciated more information about other contemporaries and the musical context, and also about the Czech tradition Dvorak was drawing on.”

This was an NZSO Community Programme, “proudly supported” by The Community Trust of Wellington. It’s something that I think the orchestra could look at doing more often – provided the right person was found for the job. Richard Gill obviously had the necessary communicator’s touch, and the musical skills to demonstrate what he was trying to express with the orchestra. All we need, really, is somebody like him, or else an embryonic Leonard Bernstein…….