The music of Max Reger divides opinion. One school of thought is that his music is, to quote one of my musician colleague, ‘bonkers’, and another that it is an attempt to challenge the innovative early 20th Century languages of Schoenberg, Scriabin, et al. with a highly-developed update of the idiom of Brahms. Certainly, Reger’s musical vocabulary scarcely extends the Brahmsian model, but the musical syntax is quite another matter: highly idiosyncratic, and wayward, it can seem labyrinthine. Reger’s single, enormous, Piano Concerto exhibits all the traits that Reger-deniers identify as irritating and a bit loopy—his penchant for over-extended stepwise sequences, for instance, and the full-up-ness of his textures. There is no denying the sheer ambition and grandeur of this work, though, which is presumably why it retains its marginal place in the repertoire, and pianists of the calibre of Michael Korstick (his excellent performance is on CPO7773732), and now Hamelin on Hyperion, take the considerable trouble to learn it. According to the liner-notes, Tovey called Reger ‘the consummate rhetorician’, and Berg remarked that his ‘rather free construction’ is ‘reminiscent of prose’; both these observations are helpful when trying to engage with this colossus. The harmonic objects are unshocking, but they move in eccentric, unforeseeable ways. In the vast, seventeen-minute first movement, I found myself getting caught up in the fascinating, almost mesmeric detail of the highly sophisticated piano writing and only remembered that this was a sonata-structure when the literal return of the opening gesture announced the recapitulation. The other two movements are not particularly long, but nonetheless feel extended as the complex textures never really abate. Hamelin and conductor Ivan Volkov bring a relatively light touch to their performance, endowing the work with a muscular and sprightly vigour. The performance by Korstick on CPO imbues it with a more ponderous solemnity, which, rather to my surprise I also enjoyed a great deal.
To counter-balance the monumental Reger work, Hyperion complete the CD with a piece cast in a superficially similar language but utterly dissimilar expressivity, Richard Strauss’s early piano concertante Burlesque. This has long been a staple of Hamelin’s repertoire, I gather, and he romps through its post-Brahmsian hyperbole with charm and swagger. I can’t pretend that I will revisit the Strauss often, but the Reger Concerto has rather turned my head. Just don’t expect to grasp its soul in one, or even a few, listenings.