REGER: Piano Concerto in F min.* Excerpts from “Episoden.” Lose Blätter, Op. 13: Choral / Markus Becker, pno; *NDR Radiophilharmonie; Joshua Weilerstein, cond / AVI 8553306 (Piano Concerto, live: January 2017)
Normally I shy away from the music of Max Reger because I find it—particularly in Romantically-oriented performances—to be thick, turgid music more interesting for its complexity and counterpoint than for its emotional communication, but something told me to take a chance on this CD and I’m glad I did. Pianist Markus Becker and his accompanist, conductor Joshua Weilerstein, take a brisk, lean approach to Reger’s dense music, ramp up the emotional level, and give us a performance of the piano concerto that is gripping and interesting.
There is no nonsense in Becker’s performance, though he does occasionally introduce a slight rubato here and there, and this is all to the good. In a way, this performance reminded me of Ferenc Fricsay’s version of the Strauss Burleske with pianist Margit Weber that I recently reviewed. Both are lean, crisp, brisk performances that pull the structure of the music together better than the more relaxed, loosy-goosey performances you hear.
Indeed, so exciting is this performance that I almost didn’t want it to end. And this is really a massive concerto—even at Weilerstein’s brisk tempi, it runs 36 minutes. Even in those passages where the rhythm becomes a bit galumphing, as for instance near the end of the first movement, Becker and Weilerstein keep things moving and don’t allow it to sound heavy or pedantic, as Reger often does.
The proof of the pudding, so to speak, is the second movement. This is exactly the kind of place where Reger often got bogged down in Romantic B.S., and the themes here are indeed a bit threadbare, leaning on emotional rather than intellectual content. I can’t say that Becker and Weilerstein make the music sound remarkable, but they take it at a sensible tempo for a “Largo” and don’t allow it to drag. In the middle section, around 5:35 where things pick up, they inject some real energy that helps tie the loose ends together. In the final “Allegretto con spirito,” Becker really leans into the syncopated rhythms to provide a lively and spirited romp (although, at nearly 10 minutes, a rather long one). Becker and the orchestra receive a loud, well-deserved ovation when it is finished.
The solo piano works recorded in the studio in December 2017 are less exciting but no less well structured and lacking in sentimentality. I really enjoyed the five excerpts from Reger’s Episodes, which Becker sculpts with loving care—but, again, without overt sentiment.
The final Choral from Lose blätter is a very nice little piece, lyrical and lovely, almost a piano-piece cousin to his most famous piece, the song Maria wiegenlied. In a way, however, I think the programming is backwards. They should have put all the solo pieces first, then ended the CD with the piano concerto. Other than that, however, I have nothing but praise for this excellent release.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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