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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Piano Pleasures: Marc-André Hamelin Plays Reger

Max Reger (1873-1916) was not a popular composer during his brief life. He was an arch-conservative, a throwback more interested in Bach than Wagner. After his untimely death (at the age of 41), he fell hopelessly out of fashion, neglected in the face of the atonal and 12-tone revolutions of the Second Viennese School. In the modern age of classical music recordings where conductors and pianists fill endless CD catalogues with yet more recordings of Beethoven's Fifth, Mozart's 40th and the Ride of the Valkyries, Reger has been almost completely neglected.

Yet when his music is played--when a pianist comes along who can actually play it, Reger stands revealed. This exceptional disc, (recorded in 1997 and 1999 by Marc-André Hamelin and released by the Hyperion label) shows that each Reger variation, no matter how complex, forms part of a larger musical structure. These are important works, on a par with Beethoven's Diabelli Variations or Brahms' Haydn Variations.

The disc opens with the Bach Variations: a dizzying 28-minute workout. Reger starts with a theme from Cantata No 128, ("Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein"). This sweet legato theme is broken up and subjected to fourteen variations of increasing difficulty. The real wrist-buster is the final four-part fugue. Hamelin plays this last as a dizzying eight-minute tour de force, never losing sight of the overall structure as he adds detail upon detail to Reger's cathedral of sound.

In the valley between these two giants is a lovely, delicate set of five Humoresques (probably inspired by Reger's love of another conservative composer--Johannes Brahms. These works, played with grace and skill, show the lighter side of Reger's music, providing the listener with a welcome rest stop between the two mighty sets of variations which bookend the disc.

The disc concludes with the Telemann Variations. Hamelin takes a more delicate approach to this work, playing with lyricism and echoes of the galante style. These are not quite as difficult as their Bachian brethren, but they also demand a high level of technical skill tempered with lyricism and grace. Here, the Canadian pianist flies through each of these tiny, delicate variations. The final fugue closes the disc with another impressive display of tonal fireworks, executed with transcendent skill.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.