The Greatness of Reger—as Revealed by Paul Jacobs, Organist, at Juilliard

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Max Reger

Max Reger

Paul Hall at The Juilliard School
Wednesday, September 10, 2014, 8 pm

Organist Paul Jacobs in Recital

Daniel Saidenberg Faculty Recital

Max Reger – Fantasy and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46
J. S. Bach – Chorale Prelude: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658
Bach – Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 539 (the “Fiddle”)
Reger – Intermezzo, Op. 80, No. 10
Reger – Introduction, Variations, and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 73

The new season began for me with a recital which was exemplary in every way. The music-making was on the highest level, and the program was was astutely chosen for a clearly defined purpose with which no music-lover could take exception. Paul Jacobs made in absolutely clear in his rather extensive, but never tedious addresses to the audience that he had two missions in mind: 1. to bring the organ recital back into mainstream concert-going 2. to promote the music of a great composer who is neglected by performing musicians and audiences alike, Max Reger (1873-1916). The organist’s jocularity only made his passionate belief in these causes all the more poignant.

Paul Jacobs

Paul Jacobs

But first a word about the two gentlemen concerned, Max Reger and Paul Jacobs. Perhaps if his instrument were not the organ and rather the piano or violin, Paul Jacobs would need no introduction—just to stress his first point. His career began at the age of fifteen, when he was appointed head organist of a parish of 3,500 in his hometown, Washington, Pennsylvania. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, double-majoring with John Weaver (organ) and Lionel Party (harpsichord) and at Yale University with Thomas Murray (organ). Paul Jacobs joined the faculty of The Juilliard School in 2003 and was named Chairman of the Organ Department in 2004, one of the youngest faculty appointees in the school’s history. He received Juilliard’s prestigious William Schuman Scholar’s Chair in 2007. On the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach’s death he played the complete organ works in an 18-hour marathon. He was twenty-three at the time—an age, I suppose when one’s nerve and stamina at at in full flood. In 2010 he played the first concert on the newly restored Kuhn organ at Alice Tully Hall, performing Bach’s Clavier-Übung Book III as part of Lincoln Center’s first annual White Light Festival. A favorite and frequent guest of the San Francisco Symphony, he has performed and toured with them and Michael Tilson-Thomas in varied repertoire including Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion and Copland’s Organ Symphony, both of which were recorded on the SFSO label. Davies Hall set an admirable example by installing an elaborate and extremely versatile organ from the Fratelli Ruffati, which may explain why Mr. Jacobs is so fond of playing there. Not yet forty, Paul Jacobs is one of the leaders in his field. For more, read this article in the Yale Alumni Magazine and this interview. At the recital reviewed here he played Juilliard’s organ in Paul Hall, built by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland in 1969 and expanded in 2002. For full information, click here.

As for Max Reger, of whom Paul Jacobs spoke with such passion and affection, he earned the highest respect from both Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom considered him a genius. One can only admire his courage in following his own, somewhat thorny path, which requires openness, sensitivity, and concentration from the listener, but it never attacks the ears. Reger had enemies, perhaps not least because of his caustic wit and strong opinions, and lesser people than Strauss and Schoenberg tried make him out as difficult listening with flaws in his technique. Not so. His career, which brought him to Munich and Leipzig among other cities, was not an easy one, and his health was poor: he was afflicted with heart disease from an early age. In spite of that he enjoyed his tipple and smoked prodigiously, dying of a heart attack at forty-three. His orchestral variations are perhaps his best-known works, but even they deserve more exposure than they get. Max Reger would probably need no introduction if his works were easier to play. Paul Jacobs actually explained the challenges he had to deal with. His larger works are not easy for the best of organists. (Jacobs actually pointed out a mistake he’d made in the BACH Variations—the first time I’ve ever heard a performing musician confess that! Well, this is Juilliard, after all…)

But to put that first point into context, I’d caution that some churches with well-known organ recital programs do in fact attract decent-sized audiences sometimes. Often these are piggy-backed on to Evensong services late on Sunday afternoons. Nonetheless, the entirely self-standing organ recital in a concert hall is all but unheard of today, and when in the past organists succeeded in attracting large audiences, there was usually some flamboyant showmanship involved, most widely remembered today in the performances of Virgil Fox. (I’m describing the situation here in the US. The organ is of course a much more vital part of musical life in Germany and France, even today, but that has also been more at home in churches than in concert halls.) The concert hall Jacobs chose could not have been a better one, as far as I am concerned, since I very much prefer a clear acoustic to the magnificent, but often washy reverberation in large church interiors—especially if the music is complex and unfamiliar, as it was in this concert. Even the two works by Bach brought in to provide background were not the most familiar. As Mr. Jacobs observed, the Chorale Prelude: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658 belongs to the Leipzig Chorales, the so-called “Great Eighteen,” by which Bach himself set particular store, but which remain widely neglected. After this we heard Bach’s rather brief Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 539, the fugue of which he adapted from his G Minor Sonata for solo violin. In fact everything about this program was terse and to the point. In order to make a strong presentation of Reger’s music Mr. Jacobs chose to concentrate on one aspect of his organ writing—that manifested in the influence of J. S. Bach. The influence of Brahms, who had himself internalized Bach’s example very deeply, was also apparent, as shown by the brief and very beautiful Intermezzo, Op. 80, No. 10, which recalled Brahms’ lyrical piano pieces. Both this and the climax of the evening, the astonishing Introduction, Variations, and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 73, which was anything but brief, holding the audience’s rapt attention for some thirty-five minutes, were intended deliberately as secular works, as specified by Karl Straube, a great organ virtuoso, canotr at the Thomas-Kirche in Leipzig, who commissioned Op. 73. Reger’s absorption of the Protestant tradition of Bach and this modern tendency towards secularism are interesting in view of Reger’s devout Catholic background, which he never entirely rejected, although he distanced himself from it, so it seems. Straube himself was, both as organist and conductor, a key figure in the development of modern Bach performance practice, as he was the teacher of both Günther Ramin and Karl Richter, among other major Bach interpreters.

Reger’s works for organ are significant in his oeuvre, with Op. 73 and few others being among his greatest, but they are only one part of a varied output which includes piano works, chamber music, and orchestral pieces (although no symphonies, as much as he tried). He believed solidly in absolute music, although programmatic atmosphere and mood sometimes assumed a narrative guise, and his fascination with the art of Arnold Böcklin and the poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff led him towards Tondichtung. Some of this quality emerges in the intensely personal Op. 73. Reger did study the organ in his youth, but stopped maintaining his technique in 1894. After that he was dependent on virtuosi like Straube to perform his fiendishly difficult organ music. As a performing musician, Reger’s strongest suit was as a conductor. He became Kapellmeister of the renowned Meiningen Orchestra in 1911 and held the position until his lifelong ill-health forced him to leave the post in 1915. He died a year later, leaving a widow and two daughters.

It should be no surprise that the Holtkamp organ and Paul Hall are a happy match for one another. The sound in the hall is direct, clear, and warm, and Jacobs used a fairly straightforward core of registers to give the Bach an intimate tone, recalling chamber music (The D minor Fugue after all is derived from a solo violin sonata.), and to enhance the intelligibility of the Reger. Of course warmth and blending was what the Intermezzo asked for. In both, but especially the Reger, he occasionally introduced some ethereal exotic sounds, which suggested a vast ecclesiastical space, a welcome illusory expansion of Paul’s modest dimensions, and an affecting vehicle for some of the stranger psychic states expressed in the Reger works…and some of Reger’s interior ports of call are exotic and dangerous—as characteristically twentieth century as Schoenberg or Berg, in contrast particularly to Mahler’s essentially Romantic emotional landscape.

The Fantasy and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46, Reger’s contribution to the extensive literature of thematic treatments of Bach’s name, both establishes his direct connection to the music of J. S. Bach, as well as later influences as strong as that of Brahms, that is, Wagner and Liszt, especially in the Prelude, which he begins with an allusion to the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, cast in grand chromatic gestures recalling Franck. When the BACH motif enters on its own, it appears in a hushed Tristan-like guise. In this way he shows his post-Romantic perspective and clears the way to developing the four-note figure in a richly imaginative, entirely personal way. When he arrives at the fugue, after beginning pianissimo in a mysterious, almost mystical statement of the subject, he gradually enters fully into Bach’s learned world as he proceeds with his fugal argument. At the end Reger recalls the Tristan-like beginning of the Prelude, leading into a hair raising dissonant cadence, all the more effective in the relatively unreverberant acoustics, and Jacobs made the most of it. One could not have projected the  scope of Reger’s meditation on the name of Bach more impressively than Jacobs, without a whiff of portentousness or pretension.

In 1903, Karl Straube gave a remarkably successful recital of Reger organ works, in the wake of which he commissioned the Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme. This theme appears only after a long and elaborate introduction, a gentle Andante, with a chorale-like passage which belies the secular nature of the work, as well as a hint of Brahms. This is a monumental work of even greater scope than Op. 46. The invention and emotional range is vast, and every bar from beginning is as fascinating as it is moving. The writing encouraged Jacobs to exploit a broad range of of tone color to enhance the complex writing and almost insanely free-flowing invention. This is hardly easy listening, but it is accessible enough on first listening, and Jacob’s clean textures were immensely helpful in this.

One could not have made a better case for Reger’s music than Paul Jacobs, with his unique combination of technical virtuosity of the highest order, musical sophistication, total lack of pretension, and honesty. What more can a performing musician hope for than to serve a composer—a neglected great one—in this way.

Max Reger

Max Reger

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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