I heard someone recently offer an opinion that German composer Max Reger had written a string quartet which pointed the way from Late Romanticism to Contemporary Modernism. This particular work, SQ No. 3, Opus 74 in D minor, was completed in 1904. Just to put things into perspective, Schoenberg’s revolutionary SQ No. 1 (reviewed May 2016), was completed in 1905, a year later. With my interest piqued, I was prepared to give it a solid listen. I should point out however, I am not really a big fan of Late Romanticism and had never heard any of Reger’s Quartets before.
This work is in four movements. The first and third are long, and the core of the work. The second and fourth are reasonably brief.
The first movement is wonderful. It surprised me. It is rich with melodies, some that look back to Beethoven and Brahms. However there are many passages that look forward to the new world of the 20th century. It has a melancholy and ambience that is not of its time, leaving Brahms and Beethoven to look on. The movement opens with a passage of dissonance, then breaks into several gentle melodic passages, before moving through many changes of mood. There are incisive, but never angry sections that would have been out of place in the late 19th century. These contrast with some of the sweetest of melodies you could find, bound together with rich chordal passages. Nearing the end, it touches on the opening dissonance, then finishes with a Romantic flourish.
The short second movement has a jaunty, dance-like quality. It moves along for about two minutes before it segues into a slow, melancholy passage. This is followed by a quick recapitulation and it’s all over.
I found the long third movement a little disappointing at first. Now having listened to it several times, I’m beginning to warm to it. It starts with a pastoral feeling but soon becomes dramatic. It is very Brahms-like and sometimes I can hear a little Dvorak in there but it shows no evidence of any Modern characteristics. Many melodic themes are presented and developed, at many separate tempos. It is most satisfying.
The last movement is another jaunty outing as it moves briskly through some chordal passages. A brief slow melody follows, but not for long. It soon resumes its journey with contrasting sections of slow and moderate tempos. Albeit conservative, this is very positive, enjoyable music!
So where does that leave me in considering the direction and style of this work? I’d have to say that it’s slightly schizophrenic. The first movement is absolutely enthralling, full of twists and turns and some charming melodies. It has Modern passages that are quite beautiful. I love it. The two short movements are very attractive although conservative. The long third movement holds its own.
Is it at all Modern? Yes, the first movement definitely has passages that are not of the 19th century. Having said that, the other movements are conservative. I must try Reger’s other quartets.
This work is available on a single CD, and on a 3-CD Complete Quartets set on CPO.
Listenability: Slightly enigmatic, but ultimately a successful work.