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ClassicsOnline Home » REGER, M.: Cello Suites, Op. 131c (Horn)
Soon after his severe breakdown, in February 1914, Reger embarked on a series of works for solo cello, a process of ‘musical chastity’, as he put it, designed to focus his resources. The three Solo Suites share a profound affinity with those of Bach but illustrate Reger’s concern for gravity and intensity rather than a preoccupation with dance patterns. These deeply moving works achieve a spiritual depth and a technical complexity that have elevated them to be amongst the most important such works written in the twentieth century. The German cellist Ulrich Horn has played with the Berlin Philharmonic and served as principal cellist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Bavarian State Opera. He has won several awards and performed as a soloist with orchestras in Asia and Europe.
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Three Suites for Solo Cello, Op. 131c
By the time Max Reger began to compose for solo cello at the end of September 1914 he had already distinguished himself in the field of composing for solo violin (1899, 1905 and after 1909). His severe breakdown on 28 February 1914 during a concert in Hagen (Westphalia) necessitated a prolonged period of rest and recovery, and it came as no surprise that his doctors completely forbade him to perform or to write. Of course his musical spirit could not lie still for long, and even during his convalescent stay at Martinsbrunn Clinic near Merano in Italy, Reger developed drafts for his next great orchestral composition, with which he intended to retire from his post as Music Director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 132. At the same time he returned to composing music for solo stringed instruments, first with the Six Preludes and Fugues, Op. 131a, for solo violin and then the Three Duos in Old Style for Two Violins, Op. 131b (both in April 1914). Though his letter to Karl Straube, written at the end of September 1914, closed with the words “Your old Reger, who writes solo sonatas for cello! Crazy idea—but an immensely educational experience in terms of a ‘musical chastity’”, he would go on to discontinue this project for a while, as he intended, having been pronounced unfit for military service and thus exempted from duty, referring to himself as a “cripple, utterly useless to the fatherland”, to make his contribution to the events of the times with the Fatherland Overture, Op. 140, and the Requiem, WoO V/9. It was not until December of that year that he resumed work on the project that musically delivered him from the creative crisis caused by his abandoning the Requiem. A decisive factor at this point was probably the “cleansing” of his musically overabundant possibilities by limiting himself to one solo instrument (thus the “musical chastity”). It is in this limitation that the master reveals himself, directly after having given up a large-scale choral-symphonic work. And what could have been more appropriate than to return to the “beginning and end of all music”, as Reger never tired of pointing out throughout his life—to BACH? “It is precisely those relatively limited resources that stir him to try out his imagination on limited technical material,” noted Fritz Stein, Reger’s close friend and biographer, in his journal. In mid-January 1915 Reger submitted the manuscripts for print and, in spite of the World War, the Suites were issued relatively soon thereafter, in July 1915.
Particularly through Reger, the genre of composition for solo cello experienced a renaissance which, beginning with composers such as Ysaÿe, Kodály and Hindemith, still has its effect today. Though Bach is clearly the starting-point, he is not the model Reger uses for the general structure. Reger does not define “suite” as a sequence of dances—rather, he gives the genre a new, even formally and carefully crafted gravity. Even the Prelude opening the Suite No. 1 in G major, while originating in Bach, soon transcends him. The movement proves to be a construct in free sonata-form, with a recapitulation and a compacting of motifs which, despite its apparent simplicity (double stops are only seldom necessary), is all Reger, not only in terms of modulation but also in the structuring of the melody. Ekkehart Kroher has pointed out that, in the midst of all the chromatic movement, a “manifestly simple harmony and those rhythmical and dynamic subtleties” stand out, which he understands to be a kind of “pre-echo” of the “free, Jena-esque style” of Reger’s later works: “From the first measure on, the spirituality of the music forces the listener to concentrate on the essential.” The intimate, deeply earnest Adagio (distantly seemingly related to a sarabande) resembles in its form the first movement; accordingly, strong cyclical elements are at work here as well. “Musically I cannot but think polyphonically”, Reger is said to have once remarked, and thus the rousing final fugue of the First Suite shows the master at work. Reger had used the violin works Op. 117 and Op. 131a in particular to explore in depth the composition of preludes and fugues for solo stringed instruments.
The Prelude of Suite No. 2 in D minor, this time a Largo movement, is formally similar in structure to the first movement of the First Suite. Reger explores the limits of tonality here with far more intensity than in the First Suite, however; the multiple “espressivo” instructions and the differentiated dynamics, ranging from pp to ff (ending in ppp), also point towards the expressive gestus of the composition. The Largo of the third movement picks up on this ambience again (and it is precisely in this context that Reger proves how one must “be capable of invention”, as he once said, “namely for melody”), and almost inevitably this calls, in somewhat lighter, complete contrast, for two dance movements, Gavotte and Gigue. Reger had dealt with these two dance forms several times since the late 1890s, especially in compositions for piano or organ.
In Suite No. 3 in A minor Reger also begins with a Prelude, this time a harmonically complex, expressive sostenuto, but with an even more heavily reduced recapitulation. As a middle movement Reger writes, as in the Violin Sonata in F sharp major, Op. 84, a Scherzo with an almost waltz-like exuberance (and a more cantabile, more expressive trio), before an extended movement with five variations on a theme of the composer’s closes the piece, musically a particularly rich work.
Reger dedicated his Suites to three cello luminaries with whom he was bound in friendship. Probably his closest friend among the three was Julius Klengel (1859–1933), solo cellist for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1876 and professor at Leipzig Conservatory since 1881, where he had become the legendary “European Cellist Maker”, his students including Gregor Piatigorsky, Guilhermina Suggia, Rudolf Metzmacher and Emanuel Feuermann. Klengel performed the première of three large chamber music works by Reger and was moreover the dedicatee of the Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 116. Hugo Becker (1863–1941), whose students included Beatrice Harrison and Enrico Mainardi, also earned high praise as an exponent of new chamber music works; it was to him that Reger dedicated his Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 28, in 1898. Finally, Paul Grümmer (1879–1965) was a student of Klengel and Becker who, beginning in 1912 as a member of the Concert Society Quartet (which went on to become the legendary Busch Quartet), set new standards for chamber music playing and was also personally introduced to Reger the same year. If Reger had lived longer, it seems probable he would have dedicated a cello sonata to this outstanding musician as well.
The first performance dates of the Cello Suites are not known. It is established, however, that after the composer’s death, both Grümmer and Klengel performed in concert the works Reger had dedicated to them. Klengel, for example, played the Adagio from the First Suite in a Reger memorial concert in the Church of St Thomas in Leipzig.
Since the end of the 1960s Reger’s Cello Suites have established themselves as standard works for every ambitious soloist; they enhance the performer’s repertoire with three expressive compositions which are highly regarded and of a similarly high degree of difficulty.
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REGER, M.: Cello Suites, Op. 131c (Horn)