Franz Nölken’s 1913 painting of Max Reger at work (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Almost exactly two months ago, the German label cpo released the fourth volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. The third volume had been released in June of 2016, over a year earlier; and the project itself was launched in 2014. This does not compare favorably with a parallel project that began only slightly earlier.
Working with organist Bernhard Buttmann, OehmsClassics set a plan to release four CDs of Reger’s organ music every year between 2013 and 2016, meaning that the project would be completed in the year of the 100th anniversary of Reger’s death. OehmsClassics managed to keep to its plan, finishing on time for that landmark occasion. Meanwhile, cpo has been releasing volumes of two CDs each, meaning that, with the release of this fourth volume, they are only halfway through to completion.
So much for mere numbers. On a more personal side, I have to confess that I have been trying to get my head around Reger’s organ music ever since I listened to Paul Jacobs play the Opus 73 “Introduction, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme” on the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, which Jacobs has been visiting on a regular basis for some time. That was in February of 2014; and I felt a need to confess to my readers that I came away thinking that the Opus 73 “borders on the impenetrable.” I have been trying to break through that border ever since.
One thing that I have learned is that, particularly where the fugues are concerned, the only way to “penetrate” Reger is through repeated listening. This is not meant pejoratively. The same claim may be made with regard to that vast lexicon of leitmotivs that guide the listener through the many details in the plot for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). One might almost say that any knowledge that comes instantly probably does not really count as knowledge.
To be fair, however, trying to get to know one of Reger’s fugues is a bit like jumping in a the deep end of a swimming pool when you do not know how deep it actually is. From this point of view, those who are still circling the pool deciding whether to jump in at all may find a fair amount of satisfaction in the latest cpo release. While it opens with the twenty-minute Opus 57 “Symphonische Phantasie und Fuge,” almost all of the remaining tracks are far more modest in duration.
Of particular interest is the Opus 145 set of seven pieces, all but one of which are less than ten minutes in duration. This collection was completed in 1916, which was not only a time when all of Europe was being consumed by World War I but was also the year in which Reger died. Each of the seven pieces was intended for performance at a specific church ritual; and the first (and longest) of these was intended for a funeral service. This is the only one with a dedication, written in memory of those who had died in battle in the years 1915 and 1916. Most likely Reger did not intend to associate his own death with the war victims, since he died of a sudden heart attack on May 11, 1916; but it would be fair to say that he wrote that first piece when death was on everyone’s mind.
With that context as a point of departure, one may be willing to approach Opus 145 as one of the composer’s more personal statements. If one can accept that “presence of personality,” then one has a fighting chance of apprehending related “instances of the personal” in his more “abstract” compositions. Perhaps this is one way of saying that the full canon of Reger’s organ music is a bit like that proverbial elephant being grasped by three blind men, each of whom describes the elephant in an entirely different way.
This leads to a second thing I have definitely learned: like the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Reger’s catalog of organ works cannot be understood on the basis of any one composition. The significance of any one achievement is modest compared to the significance of the full canon of achievements. Clearly, not everyone will be willing to take the time to explore that full canon. Nevertheless, this latest cpo release has enough to allow even the beginning listener to realize that Reger approached his organ compositions by assuming a variety of different “points of view.” If one begins with an appreciation of the diversity of a few of those pieces, one can then proceed to a broader scope with a solid foundation for the prospects of new discoveries.