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8.574074 - REGER, M.: 4 Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin / Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach (Frankfurt Brandenburg State Orchestra, Levin)
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach, Op. 81, composed within a few weeks over the summer of 1904, mark the first in a series of major variation cycles on themes by revered predecessors which are now among his best-known works. Op. 81’s richness of tone reveals Reger’s background as an organist, and seems to far exceed the scope of the instrument; the immediately subsequent Beethoven Variations, Op. 86 continued the trend in being scored for two pianos, while the next work in the series, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Hiller, Op. 100, was written for full orchestra.
The theme is taken from the prelude to the aria Sein’ Allmacht zu ergründen (‘To fathom his omnipotence’) for oboe d’amore and continuo, from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Himmelfahrtskantate, BWV 128, written for the Feast of the Ascension; it is highly complex, with a wealth of abundant melody and harmony. The first notes of the oboe melody are the same as the chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (‘He Who Allows the Dear Lord to Rule’) and are immediately echoed in the bass: this theme supplies the thematic significance of the whole work, and the flowing movement of the parts sets the tone for the overall concept of the piece.
The presentation of the opening theme already announces a Romantic view of Bach, with its nuanced, polished dynamics and full piano sound, one at odds with the prevailing historicism of the time. Of the 14 variations, the first few begin by strictly adhering to the theme, before the theme goes on to be progressively dismantled, at times only reappearing in brief, elusive phrases; only in the final variation does the theme re-emerge with full force. In contrast to Reger’s supreme idol after Bach, Johannes Brahms, the logic here is not so much singleminded as dominated by bursts of imagination: the flow of the variations is governed by a calculated sequencing of tempo, dynamic shifts, depth of scoring and proximity to, or distance from, the theme. Most of all this sequencing is dictated by the character of the variations and devoted to the principle of alternation and variety; alongside scherzostyle pieces some of the variations are mystically restrained, while bombastic, strutting pieces sit next to quiet movements, and playfully improvisatory pieces are accompanied by reflective character pieces. The concluding double fugue, opening with a quiet, strongly chromatic main theme and continuing with a livelier counter-theme, before ultimately combining both, is a masterpiece of polyphonic design, with its emphatic use of the art of intensification, and veiled, enchanting play on interconnections: ‘The theme of the fugue is only loosely connected to the Bach theme; the fugal theme is born, as it were, from the spirit of the original Bach theme!’ Reger explained in 1905.
Reger’s conviction that the Bach Variations were ‘the greatest thing I have yet written; I really think that with these variations I have produced a devilish piece of music!’ (in a letter to Karl Straube of August 1904) was matched by the reaction from audiences: in December 1904 he wrote to his publisher ‘after Op. 81 people were yelling: there was unparalleled joy’. So his piece went on its triumphal march through Germany and its neighbouring countries, and to this day it has only been the difficulty of performing the work that has stood in its way.
The idea of making an orchestral version of this work, and in the process also making adjustments to its structure, might have seemed a foolhardy one, had not Reger himself provided an excellent example of such a treatment, keen arranger that he was. After performing his Beethoven Variations almost 150 times as a virtuoso concert piece, in the summer of 1915 he went on to prepare an orchestral version that transformed not only the instrumental feel of the work but its very character: he shortened four of the 12 variations and rearranged the order of the others, thus necessitating transpositions in the keys of two of them. It is more than conceivable that, had Reger lived to see the following summer, he would have subjected the Bach Variations to a similar treatment: here too, the sonorities cry out for a comparable approach and the development in Reger’s technique, which was far from inevitable and could always have taken a different path, allows for a similar intervention without risking any loss of meaning.
One of Ira Levin’s key aims was to bring this ‘incredibly creative and colourful work’ to a wider audience by means of his orchestration and to take the opportunity to use real instruments to bring greater clarity to the work’s intricate structure. He also wanted to intensify the sound beyond the possibilities of the piano, and when for instance he uses percussion to heighten the climaxes, going as far as to use tam-tams, bass drum and cymbals, he uses nothing that Reger had not already used in his Die Toteninsel, Op. 128 (‘Isle of the Dead’). He maintains the chronological order of variations, while discarding four of the 14 (Nos. 6, 7, 11 and 12), which with the exception of the sostenuto variation No. 12 are all similar in character to one or more of the remaining pieces. This allows him to reduce the work’s overall length to a suitable concert length of 25 minutes. He achieves both analytical clarity and richness of sorority by means of astute distribution of the melodic phrases across the instruments, deploying nuanced dynamics and articulation in the process. For ease of legibility of the individual parts, he notates using 6/4 time, rather than the 6/8 time generally preferred by Reger; he also makes the average tempo slightly slower. The resulting work still has the same typical piano figurations.
Levin’s arrangement belongs in a long tradition to which Reger himself frequently paid homage throughout his life, one which only fell out of favour in the era when an ‘objective’ idea of original sound held sway. Today it seems that the dictatorship of non-negotiable laws, where traditions are ossified for ever, as if in a museum, has finally been overcome—and this allows us to enjoy the subjective viewpoint of a musician who is equally proficient in making arrangements for piano and orchestra.
Reger transcribed Bach’s famous chorale prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross in 1915 in Jena. It is a straightforward arrangement, transposed from E flat major into D for ease of playing by the strings. This is one of Bach’s lushest chorale preludes, and so it would seem obvious that it would appeal to Reger. However, he made a small change to the last chord of the penultimate bar which actually makes his version less chromatic than Bach’s. Perhaps this is an example of the simplification Reger sought at the end of his life.
It was during his tenure as court Kapellmeister at Meiningen (1911–14) that Reger had his first opportunities to explore experiments in sound with an orchestra of his own. Whereas earlier in his career he had been accused of excessively heavy orchestration, his aim was now a kind of malleable structure, one he thought he had first truly achieved in his Mozart Variations, in which, as he himself noted in 1914, ‘every note was calculated for sonic effect’: to this end he sought to ensure that every individual part was precisely nuanced in its phrasing and dynamics. At the same time he was experimenting with quasi-symphonic forms, with no apparent logic to his selection of musical forms: Op. 123 recalls the concerto grosso form of the Baroque era, the Romantic Suite Op. 125 offers a slice of German impressionism, while the Vier Tondichtungen (‘Four Tone Poems’) are atmospheric pictures inspired by paintings of Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). As a young man Reger already felt a close affinity with the Swiss symbolist painter, who also inspired many of his contemporaries; for instance, he dubbed the variation movement of his String Quartet, Op. 74 Der geigende Eremit (‘The Hermit Fiddler’), in allusion to Böcklin’s painting, originally titled Der Einsiedler (‘The Recluse’)—a work that for Reger encapsulated the symbolic ideal of the musician who could concentrate exclusively on his vocation, far from worldly distractions. He cited the same painting as inspiration for a tribute in the Larghetto of his Orchestral Serenade, Op. 95. It seems therefore that the stimulus for his Op. 128 was a similar one. Böcklin and Reger both made death a central and lifelong theme of their work, looking it squarely in the eye: their motto was ‘as long as I paint (or compose), I am alive’. Both were also linked by a particular kind of humour, often missed: the oscillations between pathos and irony within a Böcklin painting, the sudden shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous (and vice versa) can also regularly be encountered within the confined contexts of Reger’s music.
The sequence of ‘four orchestral mood pictures’ corresponds to the movements of a symphony distinguished on the one hand by their different instrumental scoring, but at the same time interlinked by thematic connections. The chromatic line, both upwards and downwards, plays a key role in this motivic structure: it is charged with a range of wildly varying emotions, sometimes careering high spirits, sometimes melancholy. Reger supplied his almost deaf employer, the Duke Georg II, with very vivid descriptions: he said that the reflective opening movement Geigender Eremit (‘Fiddling Hermit’), with its recitative-like violin solo that extends throughout the entire movement, was ‘portrayed … with a bitter sweetness … in the softest, most tender colours’. Böcklin’s Spiel der Wellen (‘Play of the Waves’) inspired Reger to write a Scherzo that with its sparkling flute solos and undulating, chromatic string writing and brighter scoring ‘sounds very delicate, almost “incorporeal”’ and whose forced jollity repeatedly sinks into a pianissimo.
The expressive focus is the slow movement, inspired by Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, in which the wan sounds of muted strings and muffled winds, underscored by the funeral kettledrum with its characteristic triplet rhythm and with the harmonies of liturgical tonality (‘Palestrina harmonies’), as Reger put it, express ‘bleak, desolate despair’, which soon shifts to ‘violent eruptions of pain’ on bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam, and ‘finally, a great transfiguration’. Here Reger, with his chorale-like chordal sounds, expresses resignation in the face of the inevitability of death.
The turbulent Vivace finale, inspired by Böcklin’s Bacchanal, is, in Reger’s words, ‘incomparable in its savagery, frenzy and Dionysian spirits’, and one musician thought that at the end it seemed as though ‘the gods themselves were hopelessly intoxicated’. Levin’s interpretation expresses Bacchanalian inebriation using the swiftest tempos possible, while also ensuring supreme clarity of the individual parts, often contrapuntally treated. Reger would have enjoyed the almost indecent syncopation of the tenor and bass trombones as they surge, fortissimo, into the third bar, and the same goes for the repeated pithy rhythms that seem to echo the stubbornness of drunkards.
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