, November 2008
Max Reger was a prolific loner whose career seemed to vacillate readily between having success as a professor, being misunderstood as a member of the avant-garde, and being derided for his old-fashioned devotion to tonality and traditional structural forms. What is left to us is a large body of work, some of which is over-ripe and difficult to digest. Yet for all of his excursions into then uncharted chromatic harmonies, fiendishly difficult keyboard music written for himself to play and structural architecture often stretched to the breaking point, we still have a composer of often profound depth and surprising originality.
A virtuoso pianist with an active performing career, Reger had a great love for chamber music, much of which was composed for strings and piano with himself as the soloist of choice. His two piano quartets are influenced by the work of Johannes Brahms, a composer whom Reger played and admired. This second quartet is full of storms, and yet its overall demeanor is carefully shaded in melancholy so as to give it a rather sweet and autumnal feeling. The opening allegro is full of passionate outbursts with some very thick textures and heavy handed piano writing. The second movement vivace is much more playful and a welcome relief from the thunderstorm of the first movement. There follows a graceful and tender largo and a spirited allegro ending.
It would be very easy to let this music derail emotionally, as it is just close enough to the edge of excess to get syrupy in the wrong hands. The Aperos however give us a balanced and nuanced performance with romantic gush given just the right amount of restraint to keep us listening. Any more passion would be over the top, any less would result in too academic a reading. The thick texture of the piano writing is kept in check by Frank-Immo Zichner, and his string playing colleagues have ample power to keep up with what is at times some overly dense keyboard writing.
Lovely as the quartet may be, the real gem of this disc is the elegant String Trio in d minor, Op. 141b, which was reconstituted from an earlier serenade for flute. From a warm and glowing opening movement, we move to an elegant theme and variations, quite touching in its simple beauty. The work is rounded off by a sprightly little vivace. One really could not ask for a finer performance. The sound is warm and balanced and themes sing like arias in a Bellini opera.
The stretching of tonality and the frequent chromatic shifts in harmony might be a turn off to some listeners, but for anyone who enjoys late romantic music, this disc is a winner. It left me anxious to check out its companion disc (Naxos 8.570785) to see what Reger’s earlier outings in the same two instrumental line-ups might sound like.