Friday, February 14, 2020

Weinberger’s Reger Project: Volume 6

1913 photograph of Max Reger at a recording session playing the Welte-Philharmonic-Organ (taken from Welte advertising material, photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This year began with the German label cpo releasing the sixth volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. Each volume has consisted of two CDs, and the first recordings for the first volume were made in 2012. Within that time interval, organist Bernhard Buttmann set a plan with OehmsClassics for his own complete-works Reger project. The schedule involved releasing four volumes, each consisting of four CDs, every year between 2013 and 2016, that last year marking the 100th anniversary of Reger’s death. Using that project as a benchmark, it is likely that, when completed, Weinberger’s project will consist of eight two-CD volumes.

Personally, I rather liked the idea of writing about two independent Reger-organ projects in tandem. The entire repertoire was far less familiar to me than that of Johann Sebastian Bach; and I figured I might learn a thing or two through “total immersion.” As far as that immersion occurring twice, that just struck me as further orientation in a new repertoire. However, my entire account of Buttmann project took place during my tenure. Meanwhile, Weinberger is proceeding slowly but surely.

One consequence, of course, is that, if I need to consult a particular piece, the Buttmann collection is pretty much guaranteed to satisfy, while, assuming random conditions, Weinberger will satisfy six times out of eight. A more serious consequence is that increased listening will lead to increased awareness of distinguishing features. In Weinberger’s case those features concern amplitude; and, while any track may reflect a rich account of a particular organ in a particular space (usually the interior of a church), the significantly expanded scope of dynamic levels does not translate well for most of the ways in which we listen to music.

The bottom line is that Weinberger works at extreme dynamic levels at both ends of the scale. On the loud side, he may never “pull out all the stops;” but he engages enough registers that being in the presence of the performance may well set the viscera vibrating. At the other extreme Weinberger can play a pianissimo passage that would allow you to hear the drop of a pin. That latter extreme almost seems to have been conceived for meditation in a church, particularly when it is applied to many of the chorale preludes on this new album. Weinberger almost seems to encourage the listening to think more about the hymn and its words than about the music that Reger provided.

The problem is that there are very few (in any) playback systems that can accommodate both extremes without the hand of the listener changing the setting of the volume dial. This puts a new slant on what it means to be an “active listener.” To some extent this puts most listeners in the same situation as an organist’s apprentice, who assists with making major changes in the controls of the stops. Such a listener might appreciate having the music itself at hand to be prepared for making those volume changes.

Writing as a formerly rabid score-reader, however, I approach this scenario with caution. Yes, having the score to hand tends to amplify overall awareness. However, at the same time, too much attention to all of the individual notes can distract attention from the overall listening experience. As they might say, there are too many tress around to allow one to see the forest. On the other hand I am not entirely averse to the possibility that listening to Weinberger asks more of the listener than listening to Buttmann did. Ultimately, this is a matter of personal taste; and those drawn to the taste behind Weinberger’s recordings will probably be more than satisfied with the rewards of attentive listening.

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