REGER:  Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Op. l28. To Hope, Op. 124.  Romantic Suite after J. F. Eichendorff, Op. 125.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; London Philharmonic Orch/Leon Botstein, cond.
TELARC CD 80589 (F) (DDD) TT:  64:47

As a musical polymath—scholar, educator, author, and increasingly during the last two decades conductor—Leon Botstein may not always have hit the target in his recordings for CRI, Koch International, Vanguard, New World and, since 1998, Telarc with the London Phil. But his departures from the beaten path are prevailingly provocative. In the beginning Botstein's repertory was 20th-century American with the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. But since, on labels other than CRI, he has championed more or less neglected works by middle-European Romantic and post-Romantic composers ranging from Schubert to Dohnányi, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Ernst Toch by way of Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner-Schalk, and here Max Reger (1873-1916). None of the music on this disc was composed by the comparatively short-lived, sometime- pedant whose variations for orchestra on themes by Mozart and W. A. Hiller are mercilessly bloated (and end with fugues, as do his keyboard variations on themes of Bach and Beethoven), although they coexist chronologically.

The disc is subtitled "Reger and Romanticism," and while the terminal edition of Schwann listed two earlier performances on cpo of the Romantic Suite after Eichendorff, and two of the concert aria "An die Hoffnung" (one on cpo, the other on Berlin Classics), none were widely available stateside. I was startled, however, to find no version of the Böcklin Suite (whose full title, so very Regerish, is Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Op. 128). This work introduced me to his music in my thirsty teens on three Capitol 78s in a maroon, leatherette album, played by the "German Philharmonic of Prague" (after WW2 the Bamberg Orchestra) under Josef Keilberth. I always found it a little off-center expressively, yet listened several times to what sounded rather like Richard Strauss without whistlable "tunes." It stuck in the memory, however, in part because the third movement was inspired by the same "Isle of the Dead" painting that inspired Rachmaninov, who composed his tone poem in 1909, four years before Reger's shorter setting. Otherwise the two versions have only the orchestra and romanticism in common. Few if any are likely to favor Reger's less overtly somber setting, or that of the other three movements, but his muse was esthetically attuned to the Wilhelminian style of B–cklin's paintings (no less than four were entitled "The Isle of the Dead" - in German, "Toteninsel").

Eine Romantische Suite nach J.F. Eichendorff, Op. 125, was composed a year earlier, in 1912—three movements that are Reger's response to the poet's "Night Magic," "Fairies" and "Eagle" (admirably, texts are supplied in the program book). So are the words of H–lderlin's "To Hope," also composed in 1912, although melodically as well as texturally it is the least appealing work on this disc, perhaps because a plain-voiced singer lacks vocal character. It lasts just under 10 minutes and can be skipped once heard, but the rest—if the idiom appeals to you—should give pleasure. The orchestra plays suavely for Botstein, who sounds altogether in his element. Add another of Telarc's voluptuous "Direct Stream Digital" recordings, made in London's Walthamstow Town Hall on January 4-7, 2001, and you too may wonder why Telarc waited almost two years to release the disc.

R.D. (February 2003)