REGER: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Four Tone-Poems After Arnold Böcklin; WOLF: Italian Serenade for Small Orchestra, “Der Rattenfaenger” – Arno Schellenberg, baritone/ Leipzig Symphony Orchestra/ Deutsches Philharmonisches Orchester Prag – Joseph Keilberth – Pristine PASC Audio 647 (66:01) [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968) maintained a solid reputation for a broad repertory which he led with precise devotion. Pristine restores two major wartime performances of music by Max Reger, his 1914 Mozart Variations and the 1913 Four Tone-Pictures After Arnold Böcklin, recorded, respectively, 1944 and 1942. The latter proves more intriguing, since Reger’s capacities as a creator of visual images remain underplayed.
The Mozart Variations take as their impetus the theme, Andante grazioso, from the Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331. Reger develops eight variants and a fugue, rather conventional in the Brahms tradition. The fifth variant, Quasi Presto, has some tricky agogics worth noting, especially in Reger’s use of the woodwinds and pizzicato strings. Reger departs from Mozart in the matter of repeats, often altering the scoring of the repeated texture. The fugue, which owes much to the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Handel, introduces the subject in the first violins and then intensifies the texture, only to re-introduce the Mozart original in a Maestoso blaze of glory. The recorded sound (remastered by Andrew Rose) from 1 August 1944 has a startling, clear resonance, so the rendition holds up well for repeated auditions.
Reger, like Rachmaninoff, admired the work of Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), and Reger depicts four of that master’s pictures: “Hermit Fiddler,” “In the Play of the Waves,” “The Isle of the Dead,” and “Bacchanal.” Keilberth recorded the work in Prague in a two-day session, 20-21 December 1942. The tone of “Hermit Fiddler” proceeds meditatively and reverentially, the fiddler’s plying his art before a shrine of the Madonna. The solo violin finds a response in sonorous chords in winds and strings, perhaps an evocation of the cherubim in the painting who behold the devotional moment.
“In The Play of the Waves” introduces a pagan image of human youths’ cavorting with their centaur and satyr companions. Sweeping, shimmering figures announce the motif in triplets, with eddies of water in swirling motion that crash to the shore, the woodwinds quite active throughout the frothy activities. Die Toteninsel remains the most famous of Böcklin images, given Rachmaninoff’s famous treatment and the atmospheric 1945 film with Boris Karloff. It is less known thath the artist actually created five visions on this solemn motif: here, a shadowy figure in white (Charon) stands in a rowboat headed for the fateful underworld. Sudden onrushes of anguish in the strings and moody response in the brass and winds anticipate the spiritual despair. In order to conclude on a less grim note, Reger opts for frenzied energy in his “Bacchanal,” a dizzying romp in perpetual motion, except for a brief moment of repose.
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) marks a decided development in Romanticism, with his forward-looking aesthetic that generally eschewed the Brahms impulse to conservative forms. The 1887 Italian Serenade had been meant for a full string quartet, but Wolf’s degenerative, syphilitic condition interrupted composition and sent him to an insane asylum for the last five years of his life. Keilberth’s performance (7 March 1941) remains eminently songful, with the solo viola’s rising amidst happy gestures from strings and winds. The music virtually sallies forth in high spirits that often have the flute’s answering the viola in its lyrical outpourings.
The disc end with a humorous song from Wolf’s treatment of Goethe’s take on the Pied Piper of Hamelin Town, as “The Ratcatcher” (rec. 6 October 1939 from Radio Leipzig) depicts a rogue who abuses rats, women, and children with a sense of malicious mirth. Baritone Arno Schellenberger (1903-1983) and Keilberth do the honors with lively zest.