Violin Concerto in a Major Two Romances-the Romant Import
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Reger is one of those composers more talked about than listened to - caricatured as a prolific writer of organ music with a penchant for dense musical textures. However, he certainly was not averse to a good tune: the two Romances abound in lush lyricism, while the magnificent Violin Concerto shows him continuing in the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms. No less a figure than Adolf Busch championed it - first performing it when he was just sixteen. The young German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender, who has already made such an impact in recordings of Schulhoff and Paganini, is joined here by Lothar Zagrosek and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester for the 11th volume in Hyperion's Romantic Violin Concerto series - a series that is triumphantly demonstrating how much great music there is out there waiting to be rediscovered.
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"Max Reger's Violin Concerto is a monster, that is, in terms of sheer length. The work clocks in at just under an hour; the first movement alone lasts nearly 27 to 28 minutes. Busoni's mammoth Piano Concerto, which can run to 74 minutes, is a comparable masterpiece. Although the brilliance of both works is absolutely apparent, these are pieces that will never be programmed for the concert hall. It is not just the tremendous technical demands that must be met by the soloist, but the lengthy symphonic phrases and unrelenting musical suspense of the former, and the mercurial choral symphony-like structure of the latter, which defy the expectations of a conventional concerto to an audience.
I own the Manfred Scherzer version of the original concerto (on Berlin Classics), conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. What we have in this new disc is the world premiere of the re-orchestration of the work by Reger's disciple Adolph Busch. At 17 years of age, Busch played the concerto from memory to an astonished Reger. Reger himself recognized that his own heavy orchestration was problematic. After Reger's death, Busch, honoring the genius of the work, sought to bring more transparency to the orchestration and achieve a more effective balance between the orchestra and soloist by re-assigning parts. Busch did not change a note of music. His goal was to find a wider acceptance of this masterwork in the concert hall. Whether this first recording can accomplish this remains to be seen.
Scherzer was not really up to the Herculean task of the soloist, although he does an acceptable job. Kolja Lessing, equally well-versed in both violin and piano, gives a fine performance that does not depend of pyrotechnical display but is movingly thoughtful. The warmth of the two Romances is deeply poignant, as is the world premiere of the Air, which nearly quotes Bach's famous Air at the start. The Gottingen Symphony Orchestra is an excellent ensemble, and Christoph-Mathias Mueller is a conductor of great sensitivity.
It should be noted that the recording engineers strike a perfect balance, never overly spotlighting the soloist as one finds in many concerto recordings. The concert hall ambiance is admirable.
One hopes that this new recording will bring a legion of new admirers to these works, just as Hamelin's Hyperion recording has done for Reger's Piano Concerto (and Busoni's for that matter). In my opinion, Reger was the composer most aware that the age of Romantic music was coming to an end, and there is a melancholy sense of loss that pervades his later works. While his music is redolent of Brahms, his form is unique; Reger was a progressive composer and was highly influential to the Expressionist/Late Romantic movement. Perhaps that is why the orchestral Reger is so rarely performed in the concert repertoire."
Now Hyperion has released its own recording of the Reger Violin Concerto and the Romances, this time in the original version. Without question, this recording is outstanding, and the soloist (unknown to me), Tanja Becker-Bender, is astonishing. Her prominence amongst today's violin soloists is almost inevitable. In a challenging work such as this, she gives a performance of Herculean strength, never swamped by the orchestral strata of sound, and has a meltingly beautiful tone. You will be utterly captivated by the largo movement of the Concerto. It should also be noted that the wonderful conductor, Lothar Zagrosek, demonstrates a perfect affinity with the soloist and the Reger's dense palette. In many ways, this release is as fine, if not finer, than the Piano Concerto with Hamelin on this label.
Reger's concerto lasts about 57 minutes, in 3 large-scale movements, with the first taking up almost 27 minutes alone. Little wonder that the composer himself described the concerto as "a monster". In his liner notes, Wolfgang Rathert (translated by Charles Johnston) says that "the concerto's very wealth of ideas and overabundance of beauties go hand in hand with a loss of clarity of outline for the listener." For me, however, the profusion of invention never quite coalesces into any big tunes that are comparable to those from the "big 4" violin concerti in the standard repertoire (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky), with honorable mention to Bruch 1, Elgar and Walton. The violin writing is quite lyrical throughout, but again, even after listening to it twice, I couldn't find myself able to recall any particular tune. Nothing about this score is "inaccessible", not at all, but this relative lack of "big tunes", besides the work's sheer length and massive technical demands for the soloist, help to explain why this concerto has never entered the standard repertoire.
It may then seem unfair to contrast this "monster" concerto with the "Two Romances", which are obviously on a much smaller scale and are much less ambitious in their scope. According to Rathert's note, Reger composed these romances as "calling cards" to try to make a mark in a relatively populist violin concertante form. Yet it's hard not to escape the feeling that even though these op. 50 Romances aim lower, they hit the mark, compared to the concerto trying to scale the heights and not quite, perhaps, reaching the summit. The op. 50 Romances are real charmers and would definitely surprise anyone who has any sort of impression of Max Reger's music as "heavy". If nothing else, the op. 50 Romances are proof that Reger could "lighten up" when needed, I think that they would go down very well as a novelty in a live concert, if any violinist were enterprising enough to revive them for live performance. I would likewise be pleased to read of any violinist who wanted to revive the op. 101 concerto.
However, I don't expect anyone to revive the concerto soon in concert. Thus, by default, the best way for curious or adventurous listeners to learn more about these works would be recordings. Fortunately, in the case of this new Hyperion issue, we are in excellent hands in both works. Tanja Becker-Bender is well up to the demands of the concerto, and also shows a suitably lighter touch in the Romances. Likewise, the Konzerthaus Orchestra of Berlin and their former chief conductor, Lothar Zagrosek, provide splendid orchestral support. So if you want to check out these particular works, you need not hesitate with this recording. It may be your only means, for the duration.