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Reger – Maximum Reger / Max Reger: The Last Giant

Reger Maximum Reger / Max Reger: The Last Giant (2016) 

I’ve never seen a boxed DVD set of this scope and scholarship for any classical composer.

Professor Susanne Popp, Bernhard Haas, Ira Levin,  Jürgen Schaarwächter, Aris Quartett,  Frauke May,  Marcus Becker, Rudolf Meister, Andrew Brownell,  Oliver Kern, et al. Director. Will Fraser; Studio: Fugue State Films 011. 6 DVDs. [2016]. 
Run Time: 900 minutes
Video: Widescreen 
Audio: Dolby, NTSC, Stereo
Subtitles: English, German
Extras: None
Rating: ****½

My friend Alex is a Facebook fiend. She loves devising word games to play with her followers. For one of them she issued this challenge: “Ask me what my ‘top five’ are for any subject and I’ll answer it!” Her friends went crazy issuing requests and she had a great time responding. I couldn’t resist so I typed: “Your top five compositions by Max Reger.” I should mention that Alex is a composer and a professor of music. Her work is dizzyingly eclectic and often nods respectfully to music of the past. What was her response? Nothing. Zilch.

Ask any lover of classical music to name one composition by Johann Baptist Joseph Maximilian Reger (1873–1916) and they too may not answer you. In a way this indicates what has happened to Reger, a successful teacher and composer of his time.  Even in many cities of his homeland Germany, he does not appear in the repertoire.

Is this fair?

The current six-DVD set is an earnest attempt to correct this imbalance. For the most part, it succeeds.

At the core of it is a three-part documentary about the composer’s life, each one seventy minutes long. Its thoroughness is impressive, as it covers both personal and artistic ruminations on Reger. Will Fraser interviews mostly German experts about the composer’s music and reputation, both during his lifetime and now. He intersperses this with musical examples, some of which appear as expanded performances on the DVD set. There are twelve hours of filmed performances, all recorded for the project. Five of these hours are devoted to Reger’s solo organ compositions. They are strange, massive, and well-performed compositions, these organ works. Among the organists, Bernhard Haas is a particularly deft interpreter and well-spoken advocate of Reger’s innovations. But these pieces require dedicated viewer concentration, particularly from those unfamiliar with 20th-century organ. Personally, I would have sacrificed some of them to have included more than just one of his progressive (and more accessible) string quartets—he wrote six—but Fraser is an organist, so…

Because of the quantity and variety of his output, a meaningful overview of the composer and his work is a huge task.  Along with this organ work, Reger composed string quartets, sonatas, solo violin works, lieder, orchestral works, concertos, and religious chorales. The list of types goes on; however,  he never wrote an opera, mass, or an official symphony (although his modestly titled Sinfonietta actually is one).

The performers that Fraser selects range from the competent to the impressive. Interviewee and mezzo-soprano Frauke May passionately advocates Reger’s songs, many of which she sings with conviction, both with piano and orchestral accompaniment. (She also talks about them in the accompanying documentary.) Yet in all but one (the orchestral An Die Hoffnung), she is accompanied by piano in a room with mediocre acoustics that fail to showcase her redoubtable voice. I would have liked to have seen subtitles for the lieder, but we just got those for operas a few decades ago. Expecting them for lieder is, well, quixotic. Also, it would have been nice for the booklet (which is in German), to have listed the BWV of compositions based “über ein thema von Joh. Seb. Bach.” You know, just so we completists can look them up.

Many of the works included are worth multiple listenings. They sway between the traditional compositional contours of the 19th century (particularly Brahms) and the tenuously modern of, say, the Second Viennese School. The Romanze in G-major is quite accessible and nestles in the arms of the sentimental. The Sonata in C-major from two years later is reminiscent of early Bartok, with both passionate and disquieting outbursts. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most spectacular and inventive of his variations, featuring impeccable timing. Yet you will not leave the room humming a “catchy melody.” Particularly in his later works, Reger did not do catchy. The Sonata in A-minor for Cello and Piano is sprightly, impish, arch, and proto-modern. While it features nothing jarring, it is not in any way soporific. I found the String Sextet in F Major pleasant but nowhere near as riveting as the string quartets. Its sound is attractive, voluptuous even, but there is little solo work involved. Composed in 1910, it still harkens back to the previous century.

Despite its minor oversights, Maximum Reger is a compelling undertaking for the centennial of his death. In fact I’ve never seen a boxed DVD set of this scope and scholarship for any classical composer. (About 20 years ago there was a multi-part series on Giuseppe Verdi, but it contained very little analysis.) It will give you new insight into not just the Reger the composer, but the musical Darwinism of posterity, as it selects some composers and ignores others just as worthy. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s King Henry V on Fluellen (Henry V, IV, i): “Though it appear a little out of fashion/There is much care and valor in this [German].”

Documentary “Max Reger: The Last Giant” directed by Will Fraser plus filmed performances of opp. 1, 4, 5, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 26, 27, 30, 37, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 62, 65, 66, 67, 69, 72, 73, 74, 76, 79, 80, 81, 82, 87, 89, 91, 103, 116, 117, 118, 124, 127, 128, 129, 131, 135, 142, 143; WoO Ii/3, III/4, II/10, VII/41

—Peter Bates

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