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Reger Orchestral Works
Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op 132; Boecklin Suite Op 128
Dresden PO/ Weigle
Capriccio Cap71118

Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead), Boecklin’s most famous picture, is rightly on the cover of this CD, as Reger’s tone-poem setting it is a masterpiece. This CD is far more remarkable for the four pieces describing poems by Boecklin than for a (beautifully and lovingly played) account of the Mozart variations. But the Suite flags up a conundrum. What is Reger, so well-known for his repudiation of superficial Romanticism, doing when he writes programmatic music precisely in a Straussian vein? And how can he simultaneously produce two such stylistically opposing works?

Musicologists believe that it was only after taking charge of the Saxe-Meiningen court orchestra, previously conducted by Hans von Buelow’s. that Reger had the practical means to sort out his orchestrational and textural problems. In this case, he was performing La Mer in 1913, and Debussy’s influence is clear in the resulting four-movement quasi-symphony. (Die Toteninsel serves as the slow movement.)

Boecklin was a Symbolist painter; his work was enormously popular in Germany. Yet, by the time these two Reger works appeared (1913/4), the style out of which Boecklin came, Jugendstil, was already perceived as reactionary. So in belatedly celebrating the artist and the Romantic tone-poem, Reger was being doubly unfashionable, and certainly no more so than in the openly neo-classical Mozart variations.

Perhaps the explanation comes from Reger’s own statements earlier in the century that the symphonic poem was dead. The composer seems to have been temperamentally best suited memorialising the past, not pressing forward into the future. Reger was intellectually a commentator, not a critic, so to say. On this CD we hear a tone-poem that pays homage to tone-poems, and a set of variations of a theme (the opening of K331) that Mozart had already used as variations.

The Dresdeners play with immense fidelity and idiomatic awareness, the string tone is especially pleasing. Even they, however, do not completely disguise how long the Variations are, nor how repetitive the fugal writing of the last variation. Nor are the other three tone poems (or “movements”) the equal of the Toteninsel. The recording is both rich and effervescent; this is also an SACD.

If you think Reger’s thought and musical expression essentially long-winded, turgid, and best confined to the organ loft, I am afraid the excellence of this disc in all respects will not persuade you. But…if you like Reger, you’ll love this.

Ying Chang