WORKS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Telemann, Op. 134; Six morceaux pour le piano, Op. 24
PERFORMER: Markus Becker (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CTH 2312
Schoenberg thought Max Reger a genius, and a very well-known organist once told me that he thought Reger better than Bach. If ‘better’ means ‘more complicated’, there’s not much argument when it comes to Reger’s big variation sets. But most of his piano music is not in that category, consisting of smaller pieces written for relaxation or teaching purposes.
Over much of it hovers the spirit, and sometimes the sound, of Brahms, though the sixth Improvisation starts out rather like a Chopin Mazurka. The last of the Op. 24 pieces is a moody Rhapsody, written as a homage to Brahms. But while Reger is generally accused of taking things to excess and of indulging a morbid attraction to gloom, he achieved sonorous grandeur without Brahms’s awkwardness, and in slighter pieces like the Waltzes, a sense of Viennese charm with less condescension.
Full-blown sonatas for piano were largely avoided by composers in the later 19th century, and Reger is no exception; his Sonatinas are concise teaching pieces in three or four movements, with comparatively pared-down textures, though the fourth Sonatina is slightly grander than the first three. Reger could not resist grandeur for long, and even miniatures which he called ‘Salonstück’ or ‘Caprice’ aspire to something more demanding, both spiritually and technically.
To his contemporary admirers, the late Telemann Variations came as a surprise, because they struck them as so much blander than Reger’s great earlier set on a theme of Bach. Today they seem quite impressive enough, and the slow tenth and 16th variations achieve a noble simplicity which is utterly genuine.
The complete Reger piano works will run to nine further volumes, with the Bach Variations on the last. On this showing, Markus Becker is more than equal to his task, for he has a sharp sense of character and a brilliant technique.