Sonatas for Cello and Piano – No.1 in F minor, Op.5; No. 2 in G minor, Op.28; No.3 in F, Op.78; No.4 in A minor, Op.116
Suites for solo cello, Op.131c – No. 1 in G; No.2 in D minor; No.3 in A minor
Alban Gerhardt (cello) & Markus Becker (piano)
Recorded 28-31 August 2006 and 5-7 April 2007 in Congress Centrum, Hannover, Germany
CD No: HYPERION CDA67581/2 (2 CDs) Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes Reviewed: April 2008
Reger Cello Sonatas & Suites – Alban Gerhardt & Markus Becker
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Understanding Max Reger (1873-1916) is a conundrum for many a listener, but in his refreshingly frank appraisal of the composer in the booklet, Alban Gerhardt reveals how, having absorbed the music over a period of months, he stepped back from the concentrated tempo and expression marks and let the music flow naturally.
It seems such an approach is best recommended for the listener too, taking a wider context that allows the harmonies room to unfold. Markus Becker also reveals a questioning nature that asks the validity of all Reger’s notes – but again, concludes that in a wider context they are necessary and valuable.
The message is that if the listener puts the effort in, rewards are forthcoming. This background is useful when listening to these superbly played recordings first time through, the Sonatas for Cello and Piano interspersed with the more direct Suites for solo cello, which help to place both forms of writing in useful context.
The four duo-sonatas provide an ideal introduction to Reger, taking in his development as a composer, first of all hanging on to the coat-tails of Brahms and then exploring a harmonic richness that hovers near the borders of atonality. Hearing the works chronologically is valuable. The Suites, though last in the composer’s output, contain more directly accessible music allowing a period of relative recreation between the meatier sonata works.
The First Sonata introduces Reger as a keen melodist, the perceived complexities of his music not so much in evidence. A bracing opening recalls Brahms’s Opus 99 Cello and Piano Sonata, which seems to have been a model for the nineteen-year-old Reger’s first major composition. Yet while the two works share much in common, particularly a dense contrapuntal nature, Reger’s remains the music of a young man. Signs of the intensity to come are frequent, but shorter phrases and pauses for reflection, such as the first movement’s second theme, are commonplace.
In his cello sonatas Reger keeps the Beethovenian model of equality between cello and piano, and as a consequence the parts afforded to the pianist are incredibly challenging. That Becker overcomes them not just with efficiency but with flair is an indication of his musicality, as is also the case with Gerhardt when called upon in the cello’s upper register. The opening swathe of the Third Sonata is an example where the two performers are taxed to their limits, and both come through handsomely.
While the music becomes congested at times, the concentration of Reger’s writing needs performances of poise and clarity. This happens particularly in the Fourth Sonata, where Gerhardt and Becker prove equal to the challenges of the scherzo, which is light of foot in this performance, or the canonic finale, striding forward with purpose. This initially troubled work asserts itself with ever-greater conviction, unlike the fluent Second Sonata in which the early exchanges are already strong. Gerhard communicates an instant power with these, in particular the soaring melodies of the first movement.
Reger’s thematic material in these sonatas is initially elusive, but is found on subsequent hearings. The music of the Suites is far more immediate, Gerhardt bringing out the pugnacious qualities of these shorter creations. The First Suite takes its lead from Bach’s First Suite for unaccompanied cello, written in the same key and with similar contours running through the melodic line of the ‘Prelude’. The Adagio sounds a touch fast in this performance, but the light-hearted finale is of enjoyably gruff humour.
The other two Suites are on a grander scale, though the principals remain the same. Gerhardt brings remarkable clarity to the frequent passages of multiple stopping, particularly in the Second Suite, where he joins the melodic dots without losing the flow. There is always a lighter head at work here, and the more obvious influences of the Baroque period are an ideal contrast to the heavier post-Romantic Sonatas.
Anyone daunted by the music of Reger will find an ideal introduction here, for in Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker the composer finds advocates who know how to bring his qualities to the fore. Reger’s understanding of the cello is captured in vivid recordings that present the sonatas as natural heirs to Brahms, an accurate reflection too of the stature of these performances.