1913 photograph of a recording session with Reger at the console of the Welte-Philharmonic-Organ (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
This Friday the German label cpo will release the fifth volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. As has already been observed, these releases have been appearing at a slow pace. On the other hand, when I made that observation I also suggested that the best way to get to know Reger’s compositions, many of which are richly embellished to yield thick contrapuntal textures, is through repeated listening. So the slow release pace may be an asset, rather than a liability: The curious listener will have plenty of time to get acclimated to the compositions on this new release prior to the next album getting released! As always, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders for this new two-CD album.
Fortunately, this new release is the first to offer selections from one of Reger’s more accessible collections. His Opus 67 is a collection of 52 “easy” chorale preludes. Fifteen of the chorale preludes from this collection are included on this new release. For those familiar with the German Lutheran services (or, alternatively, the chorale preludes composed by Johann Sebastian Bach) many of the chorale themes will be familiar. Examples would probably be “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus my joy) or “Nun danket alle Gott” (now thank we all our God). As is the case when listening to Bach, familiarity with the hymn tune provides an “anchor,” which makes it easier to sort out Reger’s prodigious capacity for embellishment from the pitches that are actually being embellished.
Building up a sense of familiarity with Reger’s approach to embellishment through recognizable tunes may then serve to guide the attentive listener through the composer’s more labyrinthine structures. In this new release those structures may be found in the moderately generous share of prelude (or toccata) and fugue couplings, a genre that was clearly inspired by Bach’s accomplishments. Reger’s approach to this genre can probably be called “Bach on steroids,” as long as no one mistakes that for a pejorative description. After all, many of these pieces were composed during the early years of the twentieth century, a time when Mahler was exploring extreme prolongation through his symphonies and Arnold Schoenberg was working on his massive Gurre-Lieder cantata.
There have always been those quick to dismiss Reger’s organ music as being “too much;” but, in the context of this new release, which balances the relatively short chorale preludes with the longer prelude/toccata-fugue pairings, the sympathetic listener will probably agree that the durations are “just right.”