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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Eine Romantische Suite, Op. 125 (1912) [28:36]
Vier Tondichtungen nach Arnold Böcklin, Op. 128 (1913) [24:49]*
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
rec. 1967, *1972
MEMBRAN 233594 [53:25]

If your previous experience of Reger has been with his extensive body of organ music, or even with his piano concerto - for which Rudolf Serkin was an advocate – in which the harmonies can be gnarly and the textures rather thick, you might expect the worst here. Fear not: these works are readily accessible, offering up variegated colours, textures, and even melodies within clear, purposeful structures.
 
Not that there aren't astringent moments. In the Romantic Suite, the winds begin the Notturno with an Expressionist severity. The mood quickly yields, however, to a broad lyrical theme that wouldn't be out of place in Richard Strauss or even Rachmaninov. The booklet cites Mendelssohn's influence in the central Scherzo - Reger originally planned to call it "Elfin Revels" - but the devilish, even sinister waltz we hear is far removed from Mendelssohn's fairies. The Finale (molto sostenuto) is pictorial, night yielding to day, generating powerful climaxes along the way.
 
The four Böcklin tone-poems, taken together, constitute a quasi-symphonic suite. The chorale-like opening movement is somber and atmospheric. Next comes another waltzy scherzo, more Mendelssohnian than its counterpart in Op. 125, punctuated by shafts of tutti brightness. The third movement, Die Toteninsel, is pleasingly varied - neither as gloomy as the title might suggest, nor as grim as the notes imply. Finally, there's a Bacchanal, holding its diverse materials within a rigorously Classical rhythmic framework before gaining impulse in a rushing coda.
 
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's leadership is stylish and even graceful. He shapes the music authoritatively, with a good feel for the affect of the lighter textures, and leans expressively into the long, juicy melodies. He draws responsive playing from the NDR forces: note the crisp, pointed woodwinds in the second movement, Im Spiel der Wellen, of the Böcklin set.
 
Now the bad - or at least the less good - news: the sound, while serviceable, is sub-par. The solo oboe registers vividly; sometimes, so does the clarinet but the orchestral image sounds somehow "removed" and lacking in presence. In track 3, the brasses at 4:40 sound hollow and blasty, as used to happen in some early-digital productions; shortly thereafter, the climax at 5:25 is opaque. Both those last problems recur elsewhere.
 
The music's worth knowing, but I'm afraid I don't see this as anything more than a stop-gap.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.