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Reger: String Quartets, Clarinet Quintet / Leister, Drolc Quartet

Release Date: 08/09/2005 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 4775518   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Max Reger
Performer:  Karl Leister
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 19 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is surely the most significant release to date in Universal’s “Trio” line. That is a strong statement with which to begin a review, no doubt, but I base it on the recordings’ quality, rarity, and historical significance.

The Drolc Quartet recorded Reger’s five canonical quartets (another written during Reger’s teen years and, bearing no opus number, is usually not included) between 1969 and 1971; they were released on three LPs, to be followed a year later by the Quintet with longtime Berlin Philharmonic principal clarinetist Leister. The Quintet proved to be both Reger’s and the Drolc Quartet’s swan song: it was Reger’s last completed work, and first violinist Eduard Drolc died suddenly in Read more 1973, ending the Quartet’s career.

In Autumn 2002 Tully Potter, editor of Classic Record Collector , the British-based journal of historical recordings, wrote a feature for that magazine’s “Rarissima” column that focused on the Drolc’s Reger recordings. Apparently, all three quartet discs were already deleted in Germany by the time the Quintet was released in January 1973; only one of the three was ever issued in the UK, and none ever appeared in Schwann . (The Quintet recording, happily, was distributed worldwide.) So for many collectors, even those acutely interested in the music of Reger, these CDs represent the first opportunity to hear these groundbreaking recordings. Potter himself contributed the notes for this set; his observations regarding Reger’s musical and personal character are revelatory, and one wishes he had been given more space to discuss the music itself.

There had been a handful of recordings of individual quartets, but the Drolc set represented the first integral recording. Since then, three other groups have recorded complete cycles: the Reger Quartet on a Vox Box issued in 1973, the Bern Quartet for cpo in 1992–94, and the Mannheim Quartet for MDG in 1997–99. James H. North, Fanfare ’s longtime Regerian, reviewed the Bern set in 19:1, and the Mannheim, issued as individual discs, in 21:1, 22:3, and 22:5.

Vox’s Reger Quartet was evidently an ad hoc group; I can find no evidence of their existence beyond this set. Given that, their achievement is considerable: they play Reger’s music idiomatically, and they take risks. Their scherzos are invariably the fastest of the lot, often conveying more of Reger’s quirky humor than the other groups. Unfortunately, their tempos are often their undoing: in highly technical or contrapuntal passages, their intonation suffers beyond what would be considered acceptable today.

The Drolc, by contrast, tend toward moderation; they don’t linger in slow movements, and they back off tempos in dense polyphonic sections just enough so that the voicing remains clear. They obviously thought these pieces through carefully, and rehearsed within an inch of their lives: given the limited exposure this repertoire had received 35 years ago, it is stunning to hear how well these performances hold up, both technically and interpretively.

I largely concur with North’s observations regarding the Bern and Mannheim sets. The former is sabotaged by a cavernous acoustic and, perhaps as a result, a lack of dynamic contrast; the performances are also without exception the slowest of the four. The Bern set is, however, the only one to include the early unnumbered quartet; if that’s a consideration, there are also a couple single discs available incorporating this work (see North’s reviews or Archiv.com for specifics). The Mannheimers represent the best of both worlds: that is, they combine the conception of the Reger Quartet with the execution of the Drolc, although occasionally they lack the Drolc’s Schwung . They also benefit from the most lifelike sound: the acoustic of the Drolc set is clear (all-important in Reger’s polyphonic textures) and realistic, but a bit on the dry side, reflecting DG’s standard chamber sound of the era; the Mannheim benefits from an additional bit of space around the instruments.

Serious Reger collectors will want both versions. Anyone considering acquiring just the Mannheim recordings, though, should consider what I mentioned at the outset: the Clarinet Quintet. There are two important things to know about the Quintet: first, it’s gorgeous; second, quite simply, Karl Leister owns this piece. He has recorded it twice more since this 1972 version, but neither of the later versions supersedes this one, probably because of the authority the Drolc Quartet brings to Reger’s music. The set is worth buying for this piece alone.

All of which leads to my strategy for Reger newcomers to approaching his music: start at the end. No, I’m not suggesting that you somehow program your CD player to play the disc outside-in, perhaps in search of hidden messages; nor am I playing on the cheap joke Reger’s detractors have used since his lifetime in exploiting his name’s palindromic nature. Rather, I’m reflecting on the fact that Reger’s late music—say, anything beginning in the triple-digit opus numbers—is less relentlessly contrapuntal, less relentlessly dissonant, and therefore more accessible, than his earlier music; even hardened pros find portions of the op. 54 Quartets rough going. The last time I had worked my way through these pieces was before the release of the Mannheim and now the Drolc versions; interestingly, this time through even op. 54 was less extreme, less impenetrable, more coherent. It’s amazing what a difference familiarity with the idiom and good performances can make.

When Reger, worn out by an impossibly rigorous schedule in Meiningen, took up residence in Jena in early 1915, he declared, “Jetzt beginnt der freie Jenaische Stil bei Reger”—Now begins Reger’s free, Jena style. This was after the composition of the Violin Sonata, op. 139; the Clarinet Quintet, written the next year, is op. 146, and Reger died of a heart attack at 43 in May 1916. But the process of stylistic change is actually apparent for several years before 1915; the last two quartets, for example, are much less uncompromising than the first two, and op. 109 (1909) has always found the most favor among musicians and audiences.

Reger’s musical gods were always Bach and Brahms; these influences are everywhere apparent in his counterpoint and his chromatic but nevertheless tonal harmonies. At some point during his last decade, a crucial transformation occurred that gradually added warmth and a new-found restraint to his musical expression: he discovered Mozart.

So, buy this set; listen first to the Quintet and the last quartets; and then, fully initiated into Reger’s world, you’ll be equipped to tackle the early quartets, which yield their own rewards, just as surely if not as readily as their successors.

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings in G minor, Op. 54 no 1 by Max Reger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1900; Germany 
Quartet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 109 by Max Reger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Germany 
Quartet for Strings in A major, Op. 54 no 2 by Max Reger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1900; Germany 
Quartet for Strings in D minor, Op. 74 by Max Reger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1903-1904; Germany 
Quartet for Strings in F sharp minor, Op. 121 by Max Reger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1911; Germany 
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, Op. 146 by Max Reger
Performer:  Karl Leister (Clarinet)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Drolc String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1915; Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Very approachable  November 11, 2017 By Jonathan S. (Anchorage, AK) See All My Reviews "If you enjoy the String Quartet Genre and can tolerate or even enjoy the 20th century contributions to it, you will enjoy the Reger Quartets. If you struggle with Beethoven's Op. 133 and 135 you might need some more time, however, I wouldn't let that put me off acquiring the set; too many times I've dithered about whether I might or might not be ready for something, only to find out when I was that which I wanted was out of print. I found the music, reading, and sound quality agreeable and appealing enough to warrant being in the list of items to listen to again; there is more here than can be obtained from just one hearing. I agree that the Clarinet Quintet is absolutely beautiful, and I'll take the paid reviewers word for it that this is the best Mr. Leister did with it. I honestly don't see how it could be improved. As to the comment about the Mannheim recordings having more of a hall presence, I'd rather have the straight sound and play with presence in my listening room with my electronics." Report Abuse
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