REGER: Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H / Organ Pieces, Op. 59 (Hans-Jurgen Kaiser) (Naxos: 8.554207)
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Max Reger (1873-1916): Organ Works Volume 3
Fantasia and Fugue on the Name of BACH, Op.46
Organ Pieces, Op.59, Nos.1-6 Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, Op.135b
Max Reger owed his earlier interest in music to the example and enthusiasm of his father, a schoolmaster and amateur musician, and his early training to the town organist of Weiden, Adalbert Lindner. Reger was born in 1873 at Brand in the Upper Palatinate, Bavaria. The following year the family moved to Weiden and it was there that he spent his childhood and adolescence, embarking on a course of training as a teacher, when he left school. Lindner had sent examples of Regers early compositions to his own former teacher, Hugo Riemann, who accepted Reger as a pupil, at first in Sondershausen and then, as his assistant, in Wiesbaden. Military service, which affected Regers health and spirits, was followed by a period at home with his parents in Weiden and a continuing series of compositions, in particular for the organ, including a monumental series of chorale fantasias and other compositions, often, it seems, designed to challenge the technique of his friend Karl Straube, a noted performer of Regers organ music.
In 1901 Reger moved to Munich, where he spent the next six years. His position in musical life was in some ways an uneasy one, since he was seen as a champion of absolute music and as hostile, at this time, to programme music, to the legacy of Wagner and Liszt. He was successful, however, as a pianist and was gradually able to find an audience for his music. The period in Munich brought the composition of his Sinfonietta, of chamber music, and of fine sets of keyboard variations on themes by Bach and Beethoven, followed in later years by his well-known variations on a theme by Mozart.
1907 brought a change in Regers life, when he took the position of professor of composition at the University of Leipzig, at a time when his music was reaching a much wider public, supported by his own distinction as a performer and concert appearances in London, St Petersburg, the Netherlands, and Austria, and throughout Germany. In 1911 he was invited by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen to become conductor of the court orchestra, an ensemble established by Hans von Bülow and once conducted by Richard Strauss, at the outset of his career. Reger held this position until the beginning of the war, when the orchestra was disbanded, an event that coincided with his own earlier intention to resign. He spent his final years based in Jena, but continuing his active career as a composer and as a concert performer. He died in Leipzig in May 1916 on his way back from a concert tour of the Netherlands.
The music of Max Reger has a special position in organ repertoire, and he is regarded by many as the greatest German composer of organ music since Bach. A Catholic himself, he nevertheless drew on Lutheran tradition and the rich store of chorales, the inspiration for chorale preludes, chorale fantasias and other works. The esteem in which his organ compositions were held even in his own time owed much to the advocacy of Karl Straube, also a pupil of Riemann and from 1902 organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Regers technically demanding Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H was written in 1900 and inscribed to Rheinberger. It was first performed by Karl Straube at St Willibrords Cathedral in Wesel. From the time of Johann Sebastian Bach onwards the letters of his family name had served as the basis of compositions in tribute to him. In German letter notation the name provides the chromatic intervals of B flat-A-C-B, and it is this that forms the principal motif of the massive quasi-improvisatory chromatic Fantasia in honour of one whom Reger regarded as the beginning and end of all music. The work uses extremes of the dynamic range, and the Fugue presents its subject marked pppp, more or less continued until the fifth entry of the subject, on the pedals. A double fugue, with a rapider secondary subject introduced, the work makes masterly use of the traditional devices of contrapuntal technique, as the original subject is augmented, diminished, or inverted, mounting to a climax over a dominant pedal point, before the grandiose conclusion.
The Twelve Pieces for Organ, Op.59, were written, according to Lindner, to whom Reger showed each piece as it was sketched, in the space of two weeks in 1901. They represent Regers first organ character pieces. The first of these, Präludium, in E minor, contrasts its chordal opening with rapider motifs for contrapuntal treatment in succeeding episodes, the last of which leads gently back to the material of the opening. This serves as an introduction to elaborated versions of the contrapuntal episodes, finally providing a concluding passage. The F major Pastorale is in siciliano metre, suiting the pastoral mood, its two upper parts at first in brief imitation over a sustained pedal note, before taking their gentle course. Marked Vivace, the A minor Intermezzo again uses the material of the opening section to frame derived but contrasted episodes. This is followed by the E major Kanon, a canon at the sixth between the two upper voices over a pedal accompaniment. The fifth piece is a rapid
D minor Toccata, a familiar recital work, a true transposition of Bach into a more recent world, with the appropriate contrapuntal sections and moments of quasi-improvisatory freedom. The D major four-voice Fugue is introduced by the subdued subject, stated on the pedals, to be answered by voices in ascending order. The techniques of counterpoint are called into play, with a pedal augmentation of the subject in a stretto, before the sustained dominant pedal note and impressive conclusion.
The Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, Op.135b, was written in 1916 and dedicated to Richard Strauss. Characteristically extreme dynamic markings are used, with the expected chromatic modulations. In the Fantasia a rapid ppp opening section leads from
D minor to an emphatic D major chord and a more subdued Adagio. Again the sense of improvisation is never far away, as chromatic textures thicken and the Fantasia reaches a final dramatic climax. The Fugue, with a subject already foreshadowed in the Fantasia, opens marked pppp, growing slightly louder as the pedal states the fifth entry. A quasi vivace second subject is introduced into this double fugue, duly allowing the chromatic first subject to join with it in a triumphant return, leading to the final ffff, Adagissimo ending.