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ClassicsOnline Home » REGER, M.: Organ Works, Vol. 8 - Chorale Fantasia on Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott / Little Chorale Preludes, Nos. 11-30 (Welzel)
Max Reger is regarded by many as the greatest German composer of organ music since Bach. The eighth volume of his organ works (earlier releases are available on Naxos 8.553926, 8.553927, 8.554207, 8.555905, 8.557186, 8.557338 and 8.557891) includes the monumental and demanding Chorale Fantasia on ‘Ein feste Burg’ and the popular Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor.
By David Denton
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.
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Organ Works Vol. 8
Chorale Fantasia on ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, Op. 27
Little Chorale Preludes, Op. 135a, Nos. 11–30
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 Reger’s 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 Reger’s 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 Reger’s 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 and 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 Reger’s 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. This was 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.
The monumental Chorale Fantasia on ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, Op. 27, was written in 1898 and dedicated to Karl Straube, presenting an obvious challenge. With the direction Allegro vivace (ma pomposo), it starts with a passage for the pedals, before the chorale is introduced in the left hand, with the busy pedal part below and a similar texture for the right hand above. This is in D major, but the passage ends with a grandiose homophonic setting of the words Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not, the third line of Martin Luther’s hymn, in the key of B flat. The chorale continues in D major with the fifth and sixth lines, Der alt böse Feind / mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint, capped again by the massive B flat version of the following words. The first verse of the chorale continues in the same way. The second verse, Mit unsrer macht ist nichts getan, starts quietly, with the melody in the pedals, but still in the tenor register, with the busy texture of the manuals heard above and below. Each section, in D major, is followed by a chordal B flat major version. The third verse, marked Allegro moderato, offers textures of bewildering complexity, to the words Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär (And were this world all devils o’er), the tenor melody now played by the right foot, with a left-foot pedal quaver foundation to the elaborate chords of the manuals, before the melody is given out in octaves by the right hand, while left hand and pedals provide a busy counterpoint. The last verse of the chorale starts with the melody played by the right hand, before moving to octaves in the left and to the right hand again. The pedals take up the chorale, of which the opening phrase is heard in various voices, as the textures become predominantly chordal. The final Maestoso statement, das Reich muss uns doch bleiben (The city of God remaineth) is followed by a short pianissimo shift to F major, before the final D major proclamation of faith.
The Twelve Pieces, Op. 80, are dated 1902 and 1904 and dedicated to the Breslau organist Otto Burkert. The seventh piece, Scherzo, is in F sharp minor, with the rapid modulations that are a general feature of Reger’s work. There is a contrasting chordal trio section that returns briefly in conclusion. The eighth piece, Romanze, is in A minor and in a gentle 6/8.
The Dreißig kleine Choral-Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten Chorälen (Thirty Little Chorale Preludes on the most common chorales), Op. 135a, were published in 1914 and dedicated to Hans von Ohlendorff. They serve a practical purpose and make relatively few demands on a performer, but still preserve Reger’s particular characteristic of modulation and chromaticism, here within technical limits.
Reger’s Romanze in A minor, appeared in 1904. It is published among works without opus number and was originally intended for harmonium, but later adapted for the organ. Marked Andante con moto it is in 6/8, with dotted figuration, its gentle lilt leading to textures of greater complexity at the centre of the work.
The Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor of 1912, dedicated to Reger’s friend Hans von Ohlendorff, is a reworking of two piano pieces from Aus meinem Tagebuch. Relatively straightforward, but with characteristic modulations and chromatic elements, the Prelude leads to a fourvoice fugue in which the subject is heard in the tenor, answered in the alto and then the soprano, with the final bass entry in the pedals.
Without an opus number, like the preceding work, the Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor was first published in 1900 in an album for the benefit of a new organ for Schönberg im Taunus. He pointed out in a letter to the editor of the collection, Ludwig Sauer, that he had deliberately kept the work simple, so that, as he said, a reasonably well trained organist should be able to play the Passacaglia at sight. It is true that the work avoids the heavy demands and complex textures of such compositions as the Chorale Fantasia with which the present recording opens, and for this reason is heard more frequently than might otherwise have been the case. The solemn introduction is followed by the Passacaglia bass, on the pedals, above which the manuals offer succeeding variations.
(Organ registrations of the Johannes Klais Organ, Trier Cathedral, Germany are shown beneath the German notes.)
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