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Pianist William McNally explores Romantic impressions of Baroque composers

The final variation before the beginning of the fugue in Brahms' Opus 24
The final variation before the beginning of the fugue in Brahms' Opus 24
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The Concert Artists Guild (CAG) was founded in 1951 with a mission to discover, nurture, and promote young performers of the classical repertoire. They hold an annual competition named for its primary source of funding, Victor Elmaleh, Chairman of the real estate development firm World-Wide Group. They also maintain a CAG Records label, which includes the Victor Elmaleh Collection of releases by competition winners.

The latest release in this series features the pianist William McNally, who has organized his CD as a “virtual” recital. The recital, in turn, has been organized around the ways in which composers in the Romantic period drew upon both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel as sources of inspiration. The most familiar of the works on the recording is Johannes Brahms’ Opus 24, a set of variations of the theme from a movement of Handel’s HWV 434 keyboard suite in B-flat major. Brahms composed this piece in September of 1861 at the age of 28, about five years after the death of Robert Schumann; and he presented it to Schumann’s widow Clara as a birthday present.

This composition offers a fascinating cross-pollination between the formal structures one encounters in Handel’s keyboard suites and the freer forms that were emerging during the first half of the nineteenth century. Mostly, however, this is music that provides abundant opportunities for virtuoso display, It is possible that Brahms intended this as music that would help Clara to sustain her concert career; and, since its completion, it has become a major challenge for pianists to display their talents, particularly in the concluding movement in which Handel’s theme becomes a fugue subject. On the basis of this recording, one can safely conclude that McNally has established his ability to rise to this challenge, although this will always be music that is far more exciting when experienced in a concert performance.

Brahms’ set of variations is complemented by an equally massive undertaking, Max Reger’s Opus 81 set of variations (which also concludes with a fugue) on the alto-tenor duet “Sein Allmacht zu ergründen” (no tongue can tell the story) from Bach’s BWV 128 cantata Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein (on Christ’s ascent on high). It is worth noting, however, that the significance of any of the text of this cantata probably had little impact on Reger’s work. He had recently heard an all-Bach piano recital by August Schmid-Lindner and simply asked the pianist to provide him with a theme suitable for writing variations.

Opus 81 was composed in 1904, the year after Reger had published his Beitrage zur Modulationslehre (supplement to the theory of modulation). It is therefore not surprising that, over the course of fourteen variations and the concluding fugue, Reger managed to put into practice just about all of the theory he had documented in his treatise. More striking, however, is the extent to which Reger was probably familiar with how Brahms had approached Handel. The attentive listener will come away from this recording aware of several Reger tropes that probably originated from his study of Brahms, making McNally’s “virtual recital program” an opportunity to consider how Reger was viewing Brahms’ music from a distance of about 40 years.

On McNally’s “program” Brahms and Reger are separated by a slightly later (and much shorter) piece, a fantasia on Bach themes composed by Ferruccio Busoni in 1909. I must confess to having a soft spot for this piece, since it is one of the few Busoni compositions for which I can come close to a viable approach to performance. There is a sense that the fantasia is little more than a tour of “my favorite Bach” themes. However, all of the source material comes from Bach’s sacred music; and I have always felt that Busoni’s interpretation sought out the sweet spot between virtuoso display and reverence for the liturgical connotations of the themes themselves. I am not entirely convinced that McNally caught these religious connotations; but, with only about twelve minutes’ duration, the fantasia provides a suitable “spacer” between the far more extensive variation structures of Brahms and Reger.