Robert Cowan makes his pick of the latest reissues
Friday 07 June 1996
Staatskapelle Berlin / Otmar Suitner
(Berlin Classics 0091232BC)
Boring, pedantic, academic, dry, tuneless ... with a reputation like that, who'd bother to investigate further? And yet Max Reger wrote music that was as sensual as Debussy (try the Ballet Suite's "Pierrot and Pierette"), as seductive as Strauss (the "Valse d'amour" that follows) and as beefy as Brahms (virtually all of the Beethoven Variations).
So why the rumours of dullness? Probably because Reger's pre-occupation with counterpoint and modulation could, on occasion, crowd the wood with too many trees, though take the trouble to listen (a page of Reger sounds far better than it looks) and the ear responds, the mind is fully engaged.
The Concerto in the Olden Style is a Romantic expansion of the Baroque concerto grosso and while a marked predilection for massive climaxes makes huge boulders where fencing would have sufficed, balance is restored with an exquisitely voiced Largo. The present CD enshrines compelling performances, all of which serve Reger well, save for the odd spot of sour tuning and a bold but constricted recording (heard live, the Variations' epic Fugue mounts an inexhaustible crescendo). Do give Reger a chance - and if you're in search of attractive quiz material, the Ballet Suite will fox all but those who already know it.
Gielen's Beethoven cycle is only "part reissued". For example, this particular CD was first released by Intercord in 1993, but the First, Second, Third and Eighth symphonies are all new. As for digital competition, there's nothing to touch it - certainly not at mid-price. The Fourth opens to a swiftly stalking Adagio, so that when the Allegro vivace pounces we're already primed.
Gielen combines traditional sonorities with some dangerously fast speeds; come the first movement's eerie central episode and rather than slow down, he takes Beethoven at his word, keeps up the pace and effects a leaping return to the opening idea. It's a thrilling moment, though some will weigh a rather clipped slow movement against it.
Spatially separated violins pay high dividends in both the symphonies, especially in the first movement of the Fourth and the finale of the Seventh. Gielen gallops through the Seventh's Vivace and leaves his personal mark on the Allegretto by having the strings pluck rather than bow their final phrases.
The Scherzo goes off like a rocket, and so does the finale, but what one remembers most is the manner in which individual phrases connect, the dynamic leeway that Gielen allows his players and the fact that, for all their visceral excitement, both performances have brains as well as brawn.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4 & 7
SWF Symphony Orchestra / Michael Gielen
(EMI Classics 7243 5 60092 2 6)
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