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Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, April 2009

There, surely, cannot be an organist anywhere in the world who has not, at some time, played one of Max Reger’s pieces, whether it be the Benedictus, op.59/9 (1901) or the gigantic Variations and Fugue in F sharp minor, op.73 (1903) or the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, op.127 (1913). Reger’s organ works cover a vast amount of music from the smallest—Thirty Little Chorale Preludes, op.135a—to the truly symphonic—the works already mentioned. Like Schubert before him, he seemed to need a large time-span to allow him fully to express exactly what he wanted. Thus there are large-scale orchestral, chamber and choral works none of which, to me, seem a moment too long. There are many who believe exactly the opposite and wish that he would simply get on with it. However to rush this man’s music is to miss the mystical quality of much that he wrote. He was also not without a sense of humour, and there are some delightful smaller pieces, such as the Lustspielouverture, op.120 (1913) and Eine Ballettsuite, op.130 (1913). If ever a composer wrote something for everybody it has to be Reger. Where to begin is the problem because despite his mere 43 years his output was prodigious and his 140-plus opus numbers don’t give any idea of the real number of compositions. Some of the opus numbers contain several different works. There are probably as many works again, not to mention arrangements of other composer’s works, without opus numbers.

This is a good collection of organ pieces with which to start. There’s one big work, the Chorale Fantasia on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, op.27 which is very serious and treads a large late-romantic path. This is followed by the hilarious Scherzo in F sharp minor. This could almost be one of those pieces heard live from the Blackpool Tower ballroom, played by Reginald Dixon. It’s so much in the light music, comic, character mould. In its registration and execution I was reminded of some of Edwin Lemare’s marvellous arrangements of orchestral works for the organ—such as the Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre.

The twenty pieces from the Thirty Little Chorale Preludes, op.135a—heard in three groups—are lighter in texture, treating their material simply and in a very straightforward manner. There are no surprises in either harmony or melody. Here, Welzel uses all his artistry and knowledge of the instrument to create perfect miniatures by the judicious and intelligent choice of the registration employed for each work. These are delightful. The first ten pieces from this set can be found on volume 2 of this series—Naxos 8.553927—played by Ludger Lohmann on the organ of the Evangelical Church, Giengen an der Brenz.

The Romance in A minor, op.80/8 is a devotional piece, delicate and quiet, like a prayer. The similarly named piece from 1904 is more passionate and intense. Being the devotee of J.S. Bach that he was, it will come as no surprise to find a Prelude and Fugue amongst these pieces. Indeed, there are many spread throughout his catalogue. Here’s the genius of Reger the composer—the Toccata isn’t the overt display piece it so usually is. The fugue has a restraint to it, the music never raising its voice and the textures remain pure and simple. This collection ends with the superb, and large-scale in feel, Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor. A loud Introduction leads into a really well built and sustained Passacaglia, with lots of event and movement. Although this is a relatively early work it is as well wrought as anything he ever wrote.

This is a well planned and very interesting recital of little known, if known at all to the general public, music for organ by one of the most prolific and profound composers who ever wrote for the instrument. Welsel plays very well indeed. As already noted his choice of registration has been intelligently thought out and his performances are perfect for the music. Naxos’s sound captures the acoustic of the Trier Cathedral perfectly; there is a full five and a half second reverberation at the end of the Introduction and Passacaglia—a wonderful sound. Naxos is doing us a real favour by recording the organ music of Reger for it is music which cannot, and should not, be ignored.

American Record Guide, September 2008

This program of organ works by Max Reger (1873-1916) opens with one of the composer's large-scale and virtuosic chorale fantasias, 'Ein Feste Burg', Opus 27, written in 1898 for Karl Straube. In it Reger gives a musical characterization of each stanza of the chorale text in succession.

The rest of the program consists of smaller works that, for the most part, pose less formidable technical demands. These include the last 20 of the set of 30 Little Chorale Preludes, Opus 135a, published in 1914. …Martin Welzel (b 1972) is the artist for this volume of the Naxos Reger series. He has recorded at least one other disc for the series. …His performances here are authoritative and coherent.

The instrument for this volume is the 1974 Klais organ at Trier Cathedral. It was designed by Hans Gerd Klais who, according to Alfred Reichling writing in New Grove, "preferred not to imitate historical styles [but] build versatile, modern instruments that synthesize a variety of historical and modern elements". This instrument has the intense ferocity of German romantic organs but with more brilliance and clarity than most 19th-Century instruments. Some quieter combinations have a brooding urgency, but the pedal tends to be too heavy and indistinct to balance well with them. Sometimes Wetzel uses registrations that sound that bit too baroque for Reger, but most are very effective.

Readers who decide to acquire this recording should be aware of an error in the printed track list. In the group of numbers 24 to 30 of the Little Chorale Preludes, it appears as if number 26 ('Was Gott Tut, das ist Wohlgetan') is taken out of sequence and played after number 30 as track 24. In fact, the preludes are recorded in their published numerical order.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

I always relate Reger’s organ works to the symphonies of Bruckner, both sharing that feeling of creating great cathedrals of music.

Born in 1873, Max Reger’s Bavarian family fostered his love of music, though progress was more measured than rapid. As a youngster he was to help his father rebuild a discarded organ, creating a deep love for the instrument, though it was hearing the music of Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival that finally kindled his determination to become a composer. A compulsory period of service in the army left him in poor health, and when he did return to music, his works were seen as reactionary and were not universally welcome. Much of his output was for organ, though his appointment as conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra in 1911 prompted him to write a number of highly enjoyable orchestral scores. There was no doubt that the army years eventually contributed to an early death at the age of 43. This disc offers a typical cross-section of his output, opening with the massive Choral Fantasia on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, where the performer throws in the full power of his instrument, in this case the mighty Johannes Klais organ in Germany’s Trier Cathedral. Reger did also compose in a less ambitious manner, the disc containing twenty of the Thirty Little Choral Preludes that make few demands on the performer and would serve well to fill moments in church services. The German-born Martin Welzel has taken a special interest in the composer, and in the extended works - the final Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor being particularly imposing - his performances are outstanding. It is in the quieter pieces that he does not delve into that feeling of total repose I was expecting. The sound quality has plenty of impact and captures the full scope of the instrument.

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