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Google images of Max Reger – it is an immersion in sternness. Neither painted portraits nor photographs do him any favors; he seems never to smile. If we know Reger at all, it is as a magnet for adjectives: complex, monumental, dense, impenetrable, humorless, combative. Pianists as famed as Rudolf Serkin and Jorge Bolet championed his piano works but they have not become a part of the standard repertory, and for most regular concert-goers, his vast output – 146 published opuses – remains unknown. It is an undeserved anonymity. Perhaps the utterly disarming Clarinet Quintet we hear tonight will encourage some of us to explore this rich legacy for the first time.

Consider the pivotal years in the history of music his life spanned. Reger was born in 1873, the same year as Rachmaninoff, a year before Arnold Schoenberg. The divergences in these musical lives could not be more telling of both the retrenchments and the innovations that would manifest themselves in the decades to come. If Rachmaninoff stands as the last tenacious voice of lyrical romanticism and Schoenberg represents the fearlessly experimental and modern, Reger is a transitional figure between the two. But while the other two composers lived well into a mature age (Rachmaninoff died in 1943 and Schoenberg in 1951), Reger died in 1916, only 43. We can only conjecture about the eventual developments his music might have undertaken.

It is important that we keep this in mind, since mellowing is often associated with old age, but the Clarinet Quintet, Reger’s final completed work, enchantingly gentle and mellow, is not the work of an old composer. In fact, he had discussed plans for a Clarinet Quintet as early as 1912, four years before its eventual completion.

Where Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio opened in a riot of energy, Reger’s Quintet beings quietly, as though we are listening in on an ongoing conversation – a Chekov play rather than a slapstick comedy. Reger’s indication in the score is telling: Moderato ed amabile, moderately, with love. And time and again, in measure after measure, are further exhortations of espressivo and dolce, expressively and sweetly. Unlike the other two great clarinet quintets, by Mozart and Brahms, where the clarinet clearly stands apart from the strings as a central musical voice, in Reger’s Quintet the clarinet is a blended partner, a part of the texture, an equal in the conversation. 

The second movement, an agile, skittering scherzo, relaxes in its central section with a ländler-like interlude; troubled melancholy suffuses the third movement Largo. The Quintet ends with a theme and eight variations.  Describe the theme and its eventual return at the movement’s end with whatever adjectives come to mind; nostalgic, perhaps, or bittersweet. But I guarantee you that it will not be an adjective we reflexively associate with Reger. It is, indeed, time for a reassessment.

– Grant Hiroshima