on 3 February 2012
It was not easy being Max Reger and writing large-scale concert works a hundred years ago. Both the Violin Concerto on this disc and the Piano Concerto from 1910 were mauled by the critics. Reger fought back: "I am sitting in the smallest room in my house", he wrote to one opponent. "I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me." However, Reger himself was hardly the best ambassador for his music. He called his Piano Concerto "beastly stuff" and said of the Violin Concerto that "the work is and will remain a monster." He did, though, sincerely believe in his own work and resisted any attempt to make it more commercial. Carl Flesch suggested that the Violin Concerto would benefit from cutting but Reger declared this to be "absolutely impossible". According to the booklet which comes with this disc, he "took great pride in the density of the motivic work" which, he said, could be demonstrated "down to the last little branch".
The Violin Concerto is nearly 57 minutes long, its first movement alone taking 27 1/2 mins. Once you adjust to the scale of this movement, it is not difficult to follow in broad outline. It is the usual sonata structure. The themes, though, are not distinguished in themselves and, although the music is densely argued, you may feel that this movement is just too long for its material, especially given that it appeals so much more to the head than the heart. Reger is not the most imaginative of composers; he is not really interested in fantasy or colour. Logic is what matters. The harmonies are, as usual with Reger, highly chromatic and there are long stretches where there is no clearly discernible tonality. The booklet blames the concerto's neglect on its length and the difficulty of the solo part but I wonder if the truth is that many concert violinists wonder if the effort involved in learning the piece is justifiable, especially given how often they are likely to be asked to play it.
Still, I enjoyed getting to know this work even though it will never be a favourite and, if you are up for the challenge it presents, I'll give a few pointers. There is no introduction, the main theme being stated at once by a solo oboe. The orchestral exposition proceeds as a long paragraph. At a first hearing, try to pick up the climbing idea first heard at 1 min 4 secs. The solo exposition begins at 4 mins 23 secs, the climbing idea returning at 5 mins 13 secs. The proper second subject, in the expected key of E major, is suggested in the orchestra at 7 mins 13 secs and, at 8 mins 6 secs, it is taken up by the soloist. Once you have picked up the movement's two main ideas, the end-of-exposition tutti is easily followed, especially from 10 mins 32 secs onwards. At 13 mins 4 secs the climbing idea is heard. A tutti marks the end of the development and, at 16 mins 40 secs, the recapitulation begins. The second subject returns at 19 mins 6 secs and again at 19 mins 24 secs. There is a very fine cadenza, composed by Reger himself. The coda is largely built on the main theme and there is an unequivocal A major ending.
The other two movements are easier to grasp. The slow movement's opening theme is a lovely variant of the first movement's main theme. A middle section is built on a descending scalic idea and, at 8 mins 51 secs, the opening section returns. There is a fair amount of what seems to me lyrical but rather directionless writing for the soloist but this is an attractive movement and you may like to get to know it before you tackle the first movement.
The finale is another sonata structure. The introductory flourish is to feature prominently later. The first theme is a watered-down version of the main theme of the finale of Brahms' concerto. It is, like so many of Reger's themes, an idea which is soon assimilated but not truly inspired. Two other ideas are heard, the first of which features the soloist playing in double stops. It is rather Brahmsian. The second is first stated by the wind. After a resourceful development, the recapitulation begins at 8 mins 36 secs. The ending comes rather abruptly and sooner than you expect; Reger is not interested in pandering to the vanity of his soloist.
The disc also includes two Romances for violin and orchestra. The booklet suggests that these pieces were intended to follow in the footsteps of similar works by Beethoven, Bruch and Dvorak but, largely because of their heavily chromatic language, they sound rather stale in comparison. They may be regarded, as the booklet writer also suggests, as "prototypes for the Violin Concerto".
The performances on this disc are absolutely splendid. Indeed, no praise could be too high for Tanja Becker-Bender's superb rendition of the solo parts. The recording is also excellent. If you like a challenge I can recommend this disc but it is certainly not for the casual music lover.