The beating heart of Reger

Max Reger is often viewed as the boring, academic offspring of Bach and Brahms, but he did have a heart as the disc uncovers

Composer: Reger
Repertoire: Choral music
Artists: Consortium/Andrew-John Smith (conductor)
Rating: 5/5 
Genre: Orchestral
Label: Hyperion CDA67762

This is one of those recordings that immediately stops you in your tracks. The performances are fine indeed, but more than anything, it’s the music itself that strikes you – it’s both utterly unique and breathtakingly beautiful. 

Which was a little surprising, given the reputation of its composer Max Reger. The highfalutin musical know-it-all will be quick to laugh Reger off as a composer of stodgy, finger-twisting keyboard works. But for all his academic rigour – he studied the music of Bach and Brahms to the point of obsession – Reger actually became something of an old softy when faced with the rich, emotive poetry of the great German Romantics. One of whom was Joseph von Eichendorff. It was he who penned the stanzas Richard Strauss so movingly set in his song Im Abendrot (the last of the Four Last Songs). 

When Reger read Eichendorff’s poem Der Einsiedler (The Hermit) – typical of the author in its depiction of a troubled soul seeking refuge in nature – it prompted the creation of a song for baritone soloist, choir and orchestra. Later on, Reger made a piano transcription of the orchestral score. It may sound strange, but that pared-down arrangement actually adds something: a sharper focus, a greater sense of the whimsical and an opportunity to hear the somehow more contemporary sound of a piano underlying a small vocal ensemble. 

The Hermit forms the first track here, and its 12-minute span alone is something I’ll treasure for years to come. It sounds like a piano nocturne to begin with, until suddenly, as if from nowhere, a languorous choral chord glides onto the piano underlay. As Eichendorff talks of ‘quiet night…the comfort of the world’, the voices slip and slide smoothly through unexpected keys, gently encouraged by a breakaway baritone soloist. It’s exotic, luxurious, unusual and so very evocative. It all sounds, in fact, a long way from our accepted view of Reger’s music as stodgy and overbearing. There are even glances towards Fauré, that creator of such light and pure choral textures. But also of interest right now are the premonitions of Eric Whitacre and John Rutter in Reger’s restful cadences and bluesy harmonies. It’s only the indelible imprint of Brahms and Wagner that reminds you this is mostly 19th-century music. Three short song cycles for choir follow The Hermit – some unaccompanied, others with piano. 

In his Three Six-Part Choir Songs Reger divides the choir’s altos and basses in two; the result is a luxurious, bottom-heavy texture like flavoured clotted cream. But the message of the music is serious and moving: in the third song Reger sets a text by Nikolaus Lenau, a poet whose doomed passion for a married woman drove him to insanity. It’s here that Reger’s music starts to move from inherent yearning to palpable despair. To bring that off, you need a choir that isn’t just technically accomplished but can also conjure intense drama, and Andrew-John Smith’s group is perfectly suited to it. The voices blend well but are never overly polite; this is passionate rather than devotional, and you sense the fine gradations of the composer’s emotional intensity. There’s so much else, too – from the jaunty feel of Reger’s songs for women’s voices to the darkness and faint hope of his secular Requiem, written as the First World War raged in Europe. There isn’t room to recount the many special musical effects conjured by Reger and by the singers of Consortium, but neither is there much point. This music is so alluring and moving precisely because it defies description. Which is exactly what makes this CD unmissable.