MAX REGER: “The Chorale Fantasies”; HEINRICH REIMANN: Chorale Fantasy – Balázs Szabó, org. – MDG (2 discs)

MAX REGER: “The Chorale Fantasies”; HEINRICH REIMANN: Chorale Fantasy, Op. 25 – Balázs Szabó, organ – MDG 920 1945-6, (2 multichannel SACDs) [Distr. by E1], TT: 150:15 (2/26/16) [also 2+2+2] ***:

Dedicated performances appeal mostly to a niche market, I think.

Max Reger (1873-1916) was a composer who came to some prominence after Brahms and at the same time as such ‘larger-than-life’ figures as Wagner and Mahler. It is the very nature of his music and, by some accounts, his personality to be trapped in a hard to define niche somewhere in between all the other names and sounds surrounding him.

Not that Reger was not an innovator, perhaps even a genius, for some of his melodic flow and harmonic progressions are quite daring; even hard to follow and murky in places. Just a listen to most of the swirling chromatic undercarriage in the Opus 27 Fantasy on Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott or the similarly structured Opus 40, Straf mich nicht un deinem Zorn, are good examples.

Like most church organists and composers writing for that medium, Reger takes his inspiration from some of the great Lutheran hymns of the post-Reformation. (Almost all listeners would recognize ‘A Mighty Fortress’ – for example – which found its way into well-known works by Bach and Mendelssohn among others.)

Reger wrote these seven Chorale Fantasies for the church at Wiesbaden and specifically to revive the genre renowned by Bach’s work and which Reger felt needed to be reworked. Additionally, I found it interesting to learn that these Fantasies come in one of two archetypal forms; that patterned after the strict Baroque partita (as in much of Bach) and a second kind, which owes more to a ‘symphonic poem’ idiom in which there are more themes at work within the piece that just that of the original sacred chorale. It is also noteworthy that the inclusion in this collection of the Chorale Fantasy, opus twenty-five, by Reimann, is because this is the exact work that Reger found as his model for his Three Chorale Fantasies, Op. 52, Nos. 1-3.

Background aside – but my gratitude to organist Balázs Szabó for his superb playing as well as the superb and informative booklet notes – this set is truly one for a niche market.  I am not an organist and my knowledge of the idiom, until now, did not go much beyond Bach and Duruflé. I think organists may find this a very interesting rarity and those being familiar with Reger may find these works interesting and unusual additions to develop an understanding his work.

I am not completely sure that others will find this a compelling listen; especially all two and half hours, but these works are fascinating rarities, superbly played and the sound is authentic and spacious; as is everything from MDG.

—Daniel Coombs

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