Concerto in A for Violin and Orchestra, Op.101
Two Romances, Op.50
Tanja Becker-Bender (violin)
Recorded 23-25 February 2011 in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
CD No: HYPERION CDA67892 Duration: 75 minutes Reviewed: February 2012
The Romantic Violin Concerto – 11: Max Reger [Tanja Becker-Bender; Hyperion]
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Max Reger (1873-1916) is a composer whose best music rewards the effort taken to absorb it – and so it proves with the Violin Concerto of 1907. Almost unfeasibly massive in size, it lasts nearly an hour, this huge work has a first movement into which more conventionally ‘romantic’ works by Mendelssohn and Bruch could comfortably fit. It therefore makes demands on the stamina of violinists, not just technically but in taxing their ability to keep the melodic threads running.
Tanja Becker-Bender responds to the challenge magnificently, as do Lothar Zagrosek and his Berlin orchestra. This is a warm hearted performance right from the start, the woodwind choir introducing with great affection one of Reger’s most memorable melodies. The obvious parallel to draw here might be Brahms, for the scoring, but the yearning melodic contours are Reger’s own. Three minutes in the violinist enters as if by the back door, ghosting in but soon takes control, and Becker-Bender works this gradual assertiveness very well. Because of this the first movement rarely drags, doing so only when Reger’s faster interplay becomes forced in the central section, but elsewhere the theme in its various reappearances is rightly allowed to dominate. The final cadence takes a deep breath, and in doing so draws unexpected parallels to Elgar in its regal posture. The achievement of finishing this unbroken stream of consciousness is rightly afforded some room by Zagrosek.
The remaining two movements combine to last the half-hour of the first one, and again they are beautifully done. The luxurious strings that begin the Largo are indulgent but not too heavy, though what is initially a tender fable becomes rather more agitated in its middle section, the music threatening to lose direction before settling once more. The finale is allowed more frivolity, the main theme something of a scamper in its recalling the last movements of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. Here Becker-Bender’s virtuosity is tested in moments of quick-fire dialogue with the orchestra, the harmonies moving rapidly under Zagrosek’s detailed direction, and even the most angular of lines is given an attractive shape and phrase by the violinist.
After such an effort the two Romances, written in response to Beethoven’s own two works with, make easily digestible companion pieces. Composed for smaller orchestral forces, they feature a cantabile violin line that Becker-Bender plays with attractive poise. In the First the long-breathed melody unfolds with natural grace, complemented by a soft horn solo towards the end. Save for a brief central section the Second is more reserved, the strings’ gentle introduction answered by the violin in a higher register. Reger’s orchestral colouring is more subtle, too, which Zagrosek shades delicately.
Completing this desirable and well-engineered release is a substantial essay by Wolfgang Rathert entitled “A ‘Sleeping Giant’ of Music”. Not only does it put the music on this disc into helpful context, with a detailed history including the attempts of Adolf Busch to bring this music to a wider audience, but it addresses the standing of Reger himself. This is a man to whom no less a figure than Paul Hindemith referred to as “the last giant of music”, and recordings such as this from Hyperion are the strongest possible advocacy he could receive, nearly a century since his death.