Henry Wood was an adventurous conductor, and regularly risked the disapproval of the public by presenting them with works by composers they might not like: Wagner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and – horror of horrors – Max Reger!
The Proms this year are staging an interesting event, a recreation of the 1910 Last Night. A good number of Wood’s ‘novelties’ are on the programme, Ambroise Thomas, German, Forster, in fact, there is only one deviation from the original schedule. And guess who’s been given the boot – Reger of course. The (very fine) Violin and Piano Suite Op.103a is making way for the premiere of a cello concerto reconstructed by David Matthews from fragments by Vaughan Williams.
The Matthews/VW concerto will, no doubt, be fascinating, but what is it about Reger that UK audiences find so unpalatable? He is not at the peak of fashionability in Germany either, but at least they maintain a healthy respect for his industry, his forward-looking harmonies and his Bachian contrapuntal ingenuity.
Reger died in 1916, so perhaps his name became associated with the anti-German feeling of the First World War. What else could it be? He was a Brahms disciple, and it took many in the UK a long time to come to terms with Brahms (GBS never did).
Or perhaps the problem lies with his organ music. A large slice of Britain’s professional musician demographic came through the cathedral choir route, and so were probably exposed to more organ music than is healthy for anybody. Reger is popular with organists, at least more so than with other musicians, but many of his organ works or a bit on the ingestible side. I’m a big fan of Reger, but even I would concede that a little of his organ music goes a long way, which is unfortunate, as much of it is very long indeed.
But Henry Wood was quite right to concentrate on the chamber music. There is some magnificent music here, the solo works for violin and cello are excellent, many of them, I’d also highly recommend the Piano Quartet op.133 and the two Piano Trios opp. 2 and 102.
So here’s to the rehabilitation of Max Reger, a fitting homage indeed to the forward thinking and always constructively controversial Sir Henry Wood!