Max Reger's only piano concerto was written in 1910 and was a fiasco at its première. It had a few other performances in the ensuing years but until it was taken up, fervently, by Rudolf Serkin, it was rarely played, and indeed it is still not often heard in concert halls. It was based, according to the composer, on Brahms's D Minor Piano Concerto. It is not the usual vehicle for a virtuoso pianist, although it certainly requires virtuoso technique, because the piano writing is more than ordinarily integrated into the orchestral sound as a primus inter pares. From a technical point of view, the concerto is a paragon of craft: harmonic creativity, contrapuntal wizardry, formal integration rarely seen in music written in the early twentieth century. But unfortunately Reger could not write a memorable tune. The most striking melody in the whole concerto is in the Largo movement: a quotation of the Lutheran chorale 'Wenn ich enimal soll scheiden'. The Allegretto final movement bustles but is so chromatic that even though one wants to follow the melodic contours one's ear keeps being derailed. However, it is in the first movement that Reger really comes a-cropper. This is a muddy, hyperchromatic, stormily dramatic but clunkily orchestrated almost 20-minute movement that, for me at least, never rises to the level of great music. My prior exposure to the concerto was the 1959 recording of Rudolf Serkin which almost made me like the behemoth. Reger: Bach Variations; Piano Concerto No.1 [Germany] Certainly Serkin made clearer his love for and belief in the work. Michael Korstick, a fine pianist I've admired since I first heard him at the Aspen Music Festival thirty years ago, plays the work well enough but one has the sense that he is not smitten with the music as Serkin obviously was. The recorded sound strikes me as somewhat clotted, which doesn't help matters.
The Busoni 'Free Arrangement' of Bach's D Minor Concerto (originally for harpsichord and orchestra, and itself an arrangement by Bach of one of his earlier violin concertos) is an altogether different matter. In his very helpful notes, Charles K. Tomcik notes that Korstick spoke some thirty years ago with Edward Weiss, the last surviving student of Busoni, who talked of having played the work under Busoni's direction. They spoke about tempi, phrasing, use of the pedal and other matters. The piano part in Busoni's arrangement is more robust than Bach's writing for the harpsichord; Busoni was, after all, a Lisztian pianist. There are fuller chords, greater use of the modern piano's range, added notes, unBachian leaps. In the second movement the melodic line is ornamented and left hand octaves are much in evidence. The third movement has much greater evidence of Busoni's intervention. There are forty omitted bars and repetitions of material that mimic a Mozartean finale rondo. This may indeed sound odd to anyone familiar with Concerto in its original form, but as a piano concerto is certainly exciting. Korstick gives a red-blooded performance and is enthusiastically accompanied by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer.