I should begin with the unabashed disclaimer that I am a sucker for the music of Max Reger. I can take some comfort that my opinion can be traced back to Arnold Schoenberg. In a letter to Alexander von Zemlinsky dated October 26, 1922 on the subject of arranging concert programs, Schoenberg wrote:
Reger must in my view be done often; 1, because he has written a lot; 2, because he is already dead and people are still not clear about him.
Over 90 years later 2 is still a valid point, and about the only attention Reger seems to get is from ambitious organists.
However, in what may turn out to be a series of releases of broadcast recordings of performances by the Stuttgart-based Melos Quartet, SWR>>music has made available for digital download Reger’s fourth string quartet, Opus 109 in E-flat major, composed in 1909. I have to declare flat-out that this is essential listening for those interested in the modernist trends at the beginning of the twentieth century, not because Reger was one of the modernists but because he may be one of the most significant bridges to those modernist practices. When we recall that in 1947 Schoenberg delivered a lecture (whose text is included in the collection Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, edited by Leonard Stein) on the “progressive” nature of Johannes Brahms, then, through the arguments developed in that lecture, it makes perfect sense to think of the link that Reger establishes between Brahms and Schoenberg.
In some respects Opus 109 is a slightly anachronistic example. Schoenberg’s first two published string quartets were completed in 1905 and 1908, respectively. So, if they were composed under the influence of Reger, that influence would have been in the three quartets preceding Opus 109. Nevertheless, when it comes to such rhetorical techniques as phase length and larger-scale structural plans, Opus 109 does much to prepare for the opacity that envelops Schoenberg’s first quartet (Opus 7 in D minor), particularly for listeners encountering it for the first time. For that matter, it also brings a retrospective clarity to the three Brahms quartets, one of those corners of the Brahms portfolio that receives relatively attention and often inadequate performances.
Opus 105 was not Reger’s “last word” in string quartet writing. He composed his fifth quartet (Opus 121 in F-sharp minor) in 1911 (the same year that Schoenberg wrote the six “little” piano pieces of his Opus 19). Nevertheless, Opus 105 was a quartet in which Reger was pushing his own boundaries (including his determination that there was still a legitimate place for fugue in chamber music); and the Melos performance brings a clarity to his sense of discovery, even if what was being discovered had been wrestled by Schoenberg in previous years. Think of the Reger canon as a necessarily lens through which we must view the early twentieth century, and then think of Melos making sure that this lens as clear as possible when we commit to looking through it.