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ClassicsOnline Home » REGER, M.: Clarinet Sonatas, Opp. 49 and 107 (J. Hilton, J. Fichert)
Although inspired by Brahms’s clarinet sonatas, those of Max Reger are stamped with the original thematic material, harmonic progressions, expressive dynamics and intricate phrasing that make him a distinctly 20th-century composer. The high spirited character of the first sonata contrasts with the second’s introverted elegance. Reger described his third as ‘very light and friendly’. A distinguished soloist and teacher, Janet Hilton is a professor at the Royal College of Music, London. Multiple prize-winner Jakob Fichert is an expert on Reger’s piano and chamber works.
By Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine
Max Reger (1873–1916)
1900 was a particularly productive year for Max Reger, 27 years old and keen to move from Weiden, a small town in northern Bavaria, to Munich, the capital. He wrote numerous works during that year such as the famous Fantasia and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46, and the Three Choral Fantasies, Op. 52, for organ as well as his songs Op. 48 and 51, piano pieces Op. 45 and 53, the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 54 No. 1, the Two Romances for violin and orchestra, Op. 50, and various folk-song and madrigal arrangements. Reger was deeply troubled by the provincial narrowness of the Upper Palatinate. This, however, was also to his creativity’s advantage, since there was nothing to distract him from his work as a composer.
Both Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 49, were written in the spring of 1900, inspired by Brahms’s Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1. This was introduced to Reger by the private performance of his former teacher Adalbert Lindner and the excellent clarinettist Johann Kürmeyer, who also conducted the municipal orchestra at the time. Lindner wrote in his autobiography: “…Reger entered the room during our performance, he listened and said: ‘Fine, I am also going to write two such things.’ About three weeks later he kept his promise.” Like Brahms he created a double opus—Brahms wrote his two sonatas in F minor and E flat major, Reger in A flat major and F sharp minor. As opposed to Brahms, whose Sonata in E flat major consists of only three movements, Reger kept following the four movement pattern from Brahms’s F minor sonata: opening sonata movement, scherzo with a sostenuto trio, expressive slow movement and final sonata movement. Within this rather traditional structure, however, Reger developed his own individual musical language. His treatment of the thematic material, the invention of unknown and original harmonic progressions, his expressive dynamics as well as an intricate way of phrasing, make him very distinctly a twentieth-century composer.
After he had completed writing the sonatas Reger tested them in a private concert. Lindner continued: “…Kürmeyer, who had studied his part thoroughly, managed this rather difficult task in the best possible way—and to the full satisfaction of the master. In the end even the very critical father seemed highly content with each movement…” They repeated the first and last movement of the first sonata several times because of their complex comprehensibility and hidden beauties. Lindner wrote:”…most of all we were delighted by the catchy and gracious second movement with its wonderfully sweet sostenuto episode which, appearing three times, is reminiscent of the familiar folk-song ‘Ach wie ist’s möglich dann?’ (‘Oh how is it possible?’), and by the unworldly and dreamy Larghetto with its più mosso assai middle section in B flat minor, which depicts a furious but quickly dissolving awakening. The creator of this work, which is full of longing, sang himself into everyone’s heart. The last movement (6/4, Prestissimo assai) again breathes a healthy, almost exuberant sense of humour…”. The second sonata is of equal value to the first both in structure and musical invention. As opposed to the high-spirited first sonata the character of the second one has more of a melancholically introverted elegance. With regard to the effect on the audience, however, this piece is in no way inferior to its counterpart.
The first sonata was published already the year after it had been written and was given its première by Karl Wagner and Reger at the Museumssaal of the Palais Portia in Munich on 18 April 1902. The much feared critic Rudolf Louis regarded the slow movement as “one of the best pieces Reger has ever written”. The second sonata, however, dedicated to the clarinettist of the first sonata’s première, remained unpublished until early 1904. It was then given its first public performance by Anton Walch and Reger at the Kaimssaal in Munich on 29 April of that year. This was only a day after the world première of his String Quartet in A major, Op. 54 No. 2.
The Sonata in B flat major, Op. 107, was composed in Leipzig in the winter of 1908/09 shortly after Reger had finished writing the Symphonic Prologue to a Tragedy for orchestra, Op. 108. Reger, meanwhile a renowned professor of composition at the Royal Conservatoire in Leipzig as well as a successful composer and performer, described his work as “a very light and friendly piece, not long at all, so that the character of the sound of the wind instrument does not tire!” The date of the sonata’s first performance was fixed before its completion. Therefore Reger asked Bote & Bock, his publisher to delay the publication until after that date, thus enabling him to make some corrections if necessary. On 3 June 1909, six days prior to the première, Reger—as he reported to Bote & Bock—played “the clarinet sonata as a sonata for violin and piano with a very good violinist (possibly Pálma von Pásztory)…! If the gentlemen from the press claim that the work would be difficult to understand, then these gentlemen are perfect idiots. The piece sounds very good, it is a work of intimate chamber music and it is furthermore not difficult at all to play together.”
The work is dedicated to Ernst Ludwig Duke of Hesse and Rhine, whose first chamber music festival in Darmstadt in 1908 hosted the highly acclaimed second performance of Reger’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 102. On this occasion the Duke, who was very receptive towards Reger’s music, awarded him the Silver Medal for Arts and Science. He generously supported music and the arts in general. In the subsequent year the Clarinet Sonata, Op. 107, was first performed by Julius Winkler and Max Reger in the presence of the Duke as part of the second chamber music festival in Darmstadt. Reger wrote to his publisher: “…the audience went wild and didn’t want to leave the hall. The cheering became especially loud when the Duke came on stage in order to thank me and shake hands! In short: Reger topped it all. Even Saint-Saëns, to whom the entire second evening was dedicated, was an anti-climax.” Shortly afterwards Reger’s equally successful and much loved alternative versions for violin or viola and piano were given their first performances.
In his Op. 107 Reger followed the same overall structure as in his earlier sonatas. Naturally, however, his musical language had developed significantly further. Stylistically this sonata seems to represent a continuation of his Op. 49, but its mood is more relaxed and might even mirror Reger’s domestic happiness at the time. In October 1908 Max and Elsa Reger had adopted Christa, who was three years of age by then. In November or December they also became foster parents to the 1 ? year old Lotti (the actual adoption was to follow in 1910). The sonata was well received by the press: it was described as the “…return to classical simplicity with regard to its form and musical content”. It was furthermore deemed a “beautiful and deeply felt sound-idyll”. The elegant and gracious scherzo-like finale completes a composition which is full of charm and subtle humour.
English translation: Jakob Fichert
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REGER, M.: Clarinet Sonatas, Opp. 49 and 107 (J. H...