reger1I’ve been fascinated by this off-kilter waltz (the middle movement of the Romantic Suite for orchestra, op 125) ever since I first heard it – and it’s even better in the Schoenberg arrangement for flute, clarinet, string quartet, harmonium (four hands) and piano (four hands). While never straying from a regular 3/4 meter, this piece seems to get hung up in all the accompanying figures and motifs, and only occasionally soars off with heightened expressiveness into what sounds like the main melodic material, only to falter again shortly afterwards. It comes over as a montage of waltz fragments, yet the melodies, when they come, are so memorable that the piece somehow hangs together. Schoenberg considered Reger to be a genius, and must have admired his highly chromatic harmonic language and strict counterpoint.

But this music is as far away as you can get from the Reger that most people know, of dense and complicated double fugues for the organ.  It’s lyrical, impressionistic and lightly scored throughout, sliding effortlessly through multiple keys in quick succession and managing to sound innocent (almost Mendelssohnian) and yet sinister at the same time. That sinister undercurrent is intensified further for me by the distinctive sound of the harmonium. Schoenberg made this arrangement in 1921 for his Society for Private Musical Performances, as a means of playing through contemporary works without going to the expense of hiring a full orchestra. The Society put on more than a hundred concerts of modern music in Vienna by composers such as Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Webern and many others – though Reger, who died in 1916, was the most often performed by far.

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