REGER: String Quartet in E-flat Major; Violin Sonata in f-sharp minor: Allegretto; Suite in Old Style – Bonus Tracks: Clarinet Quintet in A Major: Vivace; String Quartet in E-flat Major: Quasi presto – Busch-Quartet – Testament

REGER: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 109; Violin Sonata in f-sharp minor, Op. 84: Allegretto; Suite in Old Style, Op. 93 – Bonus Tracks: Clarinet Quintet in A Major, Op. 146: Vivace; String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 109: Quasi presto – Busch-Quartet; Adolf Busch, violin/ Rudolf Serkin, piano/  Philipp Dreisbach, clarinet/ Wendling-Quartett (Quintet and Quartet movt.) – Testament GHCD 2412, 74:01 [Distr. by Albany] ****:  

It still seems fair to state that the music of Max Reger (1873-1916) does not “export” well; and that, excepting a few select works for keyboard, organ, and orchestra, he remains an “acquired taste.”  Violinist Adolf Busch (1893-1952) and his brother Fritz met Reger in 1909, playing for the composer his own Violin Concerto. The brothers soon became Reger’s “musical nurslings”; later, with brother-in-law Rudolf Serkin, the Violin Sonata, Op. 84 often graced their duo recitals. Given that 2016 marks the centenary of the composer’s death, these inscriptions of Reger’s chamber music, 1931-1951, seem particularly apt for the collector of historic musical documents.

The 1909 Reger String Quartet (rec. 15 February 1951 for Bavarian Radio) combines essentially (conservative) Brahms harmony and formal structure with post-Romantic  melancholy of a cast that Arnold Schoenberg admired. Typically, Bach-inspired counterpoint infiltrates the thematic development in the outer movements, the latter of which employs a double fugue. The lower instruments – Hugo Gottesmann, viola and Hermann Busch, cello – contribute to the dark, occasionally menacing tone of the opening Allegro moderato.  Adolf Busch himself brings his usual driven intensity, occasionally doubled by fellow violinist Bruno Straumann.

If Reger is capable of wit and levity, his Quasi presto movement provides it, rife with slides and grumblings. Hermann Busch applies a forceful pizzicato that wends its way through the other string registers, complemented by glib glissandos, warbles, and wobbles. The heart of the work, the expansive Larghetto, invokes comparisons with Bruckner. Much of the expressive power derives from colloquy from Adolf and Hermann Busch, at the far reaches of the stringed instrument spectrum, but the intermediary passagework for Gottesmann’s viola proves equally compelling. The last movement, for all of its formal severity, manages to retain a light, almost whimsical character, a curious combination of Haydn folk-idiom and Bach’s academicism.  While Reger acknowledged that his music manifested a tendency to austere rigor and heaviness, even his attempt to provide a more diaphanous texture still succumbs to thick, Brahms-like density in its more expressive episodes.

Adolf Busch and his esteemed son-in-law Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) inscribed the Allegretto from the 1905 f-sharp minor Violin Sonata 7 May 1931 at the Small Queen’s Hall, London.  The heavy-footed rhythmic thrust of music barely compensates for its lack any true melodic gift, but Busch and Serkin attain a music détente worth our audition; and when the music attempts a lyric, the principals convince us of its worth.  The music of Bach influences the Suite in the Old Style (1906), performed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.,  20 January 1941.  In the three movements, the razor-like Praeludium bears a family resemblance to Stravinsky’s treatment of Pergolesi in Pulchinella. The broad Largo contains impassioned moments of collaboration between two kindred spirits.  We hear Busch thoroughly rapt in a prayer, accompanied by an equally ardent Serkin, both performing Reger as if he were the natural heir to Bach chorales. The last movement, Fuga: Allegro con spirito, invites pianist Rudolf Serkin to display – in the manner of a moto perpetuo – the brisk, piercing bravura in which he excelled. The hitherto quiet audience erupts in gratitude.

Guild addends the Adolf Busch experience with Reger’s music as performed, first, by those who debuted his Vivace from the A Major Clarinet Quintet – Philipp Dresibach (1891-1980) and the Wendling-Quartett – in a recording for Grammophon from 1929. The Peter Reynolds sound restoration has an uncommon presence.  More in the spirit of Schubert than Brahms, the music evokes the laendler sensibility of the Austrian countryside. The Wendling-Quartett then “competes” with the Busch ensemble by performing the Quasi presto of the String Quartet, Op. 109 on an Electrola recording from 1934. The Wendling players’ realization provides a more pesant, heavier blend of humor and contrapuntal severity.  Alfred Saal’s cello plays against Karl Wendling first violin with alert, resonant figures.  Perhaps more of this group’s work requires dissemination, especially since Adolf Busch and Karl Wendling often sought each other’s musical company.

—Gary Lemco

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