Video of organist Ken Cowan performing Max Reger: Phantasie über Wie schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern, Op. 40 on the Fisk-Rosales organ in Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas.
Reger completed his Fantasia on the Epiphany chorale Wie schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern in 1899. In such chorale fantasias, which Reger considered “programmatic music,” textual interpretation was of primary importance. The text of the chorale’s five stanzas is entered word by word into Reger’s musical score alongside the corresponding melody notes.
The introduction portrays a dark and stormy world before the coming of the Savior. A trumpeting motif suggesting the first notes of the chorale to come is surrounded by intensely chromatic harmonies. After a sudden diminuendo, the appearance of the chorale theme in the tenor begins the tranquil first stanza.
A contrasting variation on verse two features a tempo which accelerates constantly until the peak of the variation, then calms gradually to the verse’s conclusion.
Reger’s friend Karl Straube, who gave the work’s premiere, requested the original setting of verse three be reconsidered. The result is a highly ornamented and expressive variation on the text, the latter part of which is accompanied by a large crescendo. An intense and virtuosic fourth variation follows, with the chorale melody thundering in the pedal.
The final stanza takes the form of an exultant fugue, whose subject is combined with verse five of the chorale tune. Constantly rising emotional intensity yields a spectacularly satisfying conclusion.
Click the below to watch Ken Cowan play this remarkable work by Reger.