Max Reger Edition: Sämtliche Orgelwerke
Martin Schmeding, organ
Cybele Records. Cybele 175 051500. 16+1 SACDs. 19h 24’36
Max Reger (1873-1916) was one of the most distinguished German musicians of the 19th century and a prolific composer, organist, pianist, conductor, and teacher. After time in Weiden and Munich he moved to Leipzig as musical director at the Leipzig University Church, professor at the Leipzig Royal Conservatory and, later, as music director to the court of Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and the Meiningen Court Theatre. Despite an enormous output of everything short of an opera, he is best known today for his organ music.
He is one of those organ composers that can bring out strong feelings in the rather cloistered world of organ players and listeners. He is frequently misunderstood in terms of his musical language; the sheer bombastic enormity of many of the pieces disguising the fact that they are often essentially an extension of mainstream Baroque compositional ideas, notably those of his hero Bach, a composer he regarded as ‘the beginning and end of all music‘. To the detailed counterpoint of Bach, he added the structural integrity of Beethoven and Brahms and the advanced harmonic language of Wagner and Liszt
If you want to listen in chronological order, you will have to do a lot of juggling with CDs (or download and make your own playlist), as they are not presented in anything like that order. I assume this is because most of the CDs have previously released as single discs – they are actually in the order of recording, from 2014 to 2016. If you have already bought enough of them, you can exchange what you have for this new complete set. The first CD includes some of his most dramatic and mature symphonic pieces: the Fantasy and Fugue on BACH, Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor, Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, and the Second Sonata in D minor. But as an introduction to the organ, that first CD is a good way to start. If you, your speakers/headphones, and your neighbours survive those pieces, you should be able to get through the other 15 CDs without mishap.
In recoiling at the sheer power of Reger at full blast, it is easy to overlook his smaller and more intimate pieces, although they are just as important a part of his output and are far more approachable to the vast majority or organists. Many are collected together in published groups.
This brings me to one of the most important aspects of these recordings – the organs used. Ranging in date of original construction from 1862 to 1911, and mostly by Sauer or Walcker, they span Reger’s lifetime and reflect the organs that he was playing and composing for. there are many recordings of Reger on modern instruments but, however impressive they might sound, to hear Reger on these German romantic/symphonic organs is a revelation. Each programme has been specially geared toward the organ used, and only one CD uses more than one organ (CD 13, with three organs). Considering that this is the anniversary of Reger’s death, it is perhaps fitting that the last two CDs are recorded in his own Leipzig on the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche organs.
Martin Schmeding’s playing is magnificent, technically and musically, as is his choice of organs and the music that would best suit them. He avoids the temptation of imposing too much of his own musical personality on the music, allowing Reger to be in the forefront. Speeds are kept within a sensible range, balancing the technical complexity of the music with the acoustic of the various churches – all of which have sympathetic acoustics. He control over the mechanics of the organs is exemplary, ranging from his ability to achieve seamless crescendos to his control of articulation
The recording quality is outstanding, with an extraordinary dynamic range that will test your audio system to the full, in whatever of the various recording formats you are using. Volumes can range from ear-splitting, neighbour-annoying to barely audible. And, to do justice to the organs, and the music, you need a volume setting that will cope with both. Reger is renown for ‘false endings’ which rarely fails to surprise live audiences who, after the build up to an enormous climax realise, as their applause dies down, that another ppp section is well under way.
The collectors box (128x182x49mm) contains the 17 SACDs together with a detailed 172-page booklet with 60 coloured illustrations in German and English. The programme notes are comprehensive and excellent, with English and German on opposing pages, and with details and specifications of the organs given at the end of the notes for each CD. The 17th CD is an interview with Martin Schmeding, all in German. The CDs each contain three different versions of the recordings: normal one-dimensional stereo, two-dimensional SACD multichannel surround sound, and three-dimensional 3D artificial head binaural-stereo, the latter intended for headphone listening with the extraordinarily expense hd-klassik Headphone Optimiser.
I will leave you to find out how much this massive collection costs.