REGER: Piano Concerto in f, Op. 114; BACH-BUSONI: Piano Concerto in d, BWV 1052 – Michael Korstick, piano/ Munich Radio Orchestra/ Ulf Schirmer, conductor – CPO 777 373, 63:12 ***** [Dist. By Naxos]:
Ah, the difficulties presented by the music of Max Reger! Sometimes his music sounds nominally lunatic to me, not knowing where it wants to go, showing strange choices in development, and lagging in inspiration right in the middle of an otherwise promising phrase or melodic line. Other times he seems completely convincing, leaving an impression of a fecund mind overflowing with ideas that are perhaps just a little bit beyond his ability to enlarge. As in the Brahms D-minor concerto, which Reger made a comparison to with his own work, this concerto also met with no success among the public and the critics.
However, as time marches on, Brahms has been redeemed while Reger languishes. Part of the problem lies in the concurrent disputes that plagued both composers; Brahms had to deal with the incessant diatribes of the Wagnerites, while Reger—poor man!—had umpteen different musical theories and parties to contest with. His was the age that saw the beginnings of impressionism, the breakdown of tonality, and Schoenberg’s first rigorous pieces (who by the way thought Reger a genius, and that he should be played more often). These factors led Reger to take a concrete philosophical stand and even to announce that his choice was the one that would mark the future path—certainly fighting words in his day and age, and ones which led critics to over-condemn pieces of any stripe that did not fit their own preconceived idealisms.
Whereas Wagner broke down tonality through the use of his own newly developed forms, Reger chose a similar path while using established form, thereby creating scandal among the traditionalists. But his insistence on the validity of these deep-rooted forms gave rise to protests among the modernists. Is it any wonder that a work like his Piano Concerto didn’t have a chance at a fair shake? The work itself is massive, requiring a huge technique that leaves no aspect of piano playing untouched. It has many rhetorical flourishes not unlike Liszt, and the part is so well-integrated into the orchestral texture that many pianists feel unrewarded when playing it. But I find it one of he most gratifying scores of this admittedly difficult composer, and the piece is simply thrilling.
Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of the D-minor harpsichord concerto of Bach reflects the sentiments of the leading Bach interpreter of the day, and also allows us some insights into the mind of one of the great virtuosos of the time. Bach through Busoni is no bad thing—anyone who has heard any of his other arrangements knows that this composer was well aware of the intensely deep emotive content of the Baroque master, and once we accept the preliminaries of his technical additions, all is indeed well from a purely expressive standpoint.
There are only four releases (including this one) on the market of the Reger. Of these, one is part of a 7-disc set and the other an archival recording. The one competing release is by Love Derwinger on BIS, and in undoubtedly fine (I have not heard it), though it would have to be fine in a superior manner to surpass this one by Mr. Korstick, who plays as if he was born in its presence. Ulf Schirmer’s consistently dedicated accompaniment—if such is even the word in this piece—is of a very high order, and the sound and production values are top notch. If you don’t generally like Reger—and I have my moments—try this one for sure.
— Steven Ritter