17 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Reger: “The Mozart Variations”

Max Reger was born on 19 March 1873. His contemporary Schoenberg thought him to be a genius no less and studied his works, Prokofiev and Hindemith admired him.

Reger is the typical case of a composer around 1900, considered to be one of the best in his day but whose popularity dwindled after World War II and who is only known to professionals today. He was a universal musician who composed for all ensembles (except opera), a well-versed contrapuntist with an almost religious reverence for Bach, a late romantic and in some works one of the few “German impressionists”, a workaholic with a huge output who died in the middle of World War I at the age of 43.

The only work by Reger that Karajan conducted is the “Mozart Variations”, a beautiful set of orchestral variations. It was billed in five Karajan concerts between 1941 and 1948. Unfortunately, there is neither a live nor a studio recording, but there is this story:

Karajan and the Vienna Symphony performed Reger’s “Mozart Variations”. The whole orchestra sat waiting for Karajan to begin the concert. He stood on the rostrum highly concentrated and made a tiny, almost invisible move with his baton. The oboe began with Mozart’s theme and everything went well. After the concert, other members of the orchestra asked the oboist how he had known when to start. He answered: “I don’t know. I had to!”

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