Reger: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach, Op.81 (Schiff)
Reger’s Op.81 Variations on Bach’s Cantata No.128, Auf Christi Himmelfahrt Allein, are a remarkable combination of rigour and variety. The counterpoint is bedazzling, the harmony feels both titanic and open-ended (beguiling, even), and the range of textures deployed is pretty extraordinary. In this huge jungle it’s very easy for the calm, almost diminutive theme to get lost, but Schiff is extremely good at keeping it aurally foregrounded. You get the sense that it’s a very small rudder guiding a very big ship: the ship wants to go its own way, dragged by the undertow of its own contrapuntal logic, and the theme has to work hard to make it go where it has to. In any case, this is a wonderful (live) performance. The dense textures are parsed to perfection (the slower-than usual tempi help, and I don’t mind them), the climaxes carefully prepared, and the sense of menace and playfulness in Vars.5, 8, 10, and 13 is perfectly captured.