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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Der romantische Sinfoniker
CD1 [54.59]
Symphony No.1 Op.28 (1868) [30.20]
Violin concerto No.2 Op.44 (1877) [24.37]
CD2 [52.03]
Symphony No.2 Op.36 (1870) [35.24]
Konzertstück Op.84 (1910) [16.35]
CD3 [56.26]
Symphony No.3 Op.51 (1882, rev. 1886) [34.56]
Swedish Dances Op.63 (1892) [21.30]
Ursula Schoch (violin)
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen/Johannes Wildner
rec. Studio of the Neuen Philharmonie Westfalen, Recklinghausen, September, November, December 2004, March, May 2005
EBS EBS6141 [3 CDs: 54.59 + 52.03 + 56.26]

Der romantische Sinfoniker II
Serenade Op.75 (1899) [35.22]
Romanze Op.42 (1874) [9.59]
Suite für grosses Orchester nach russischen Volksliedern Op.79b (1903) [18.25]
Ursula Schoch (violin)
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen/Theo Wolters
rec. Studio of the Neuen Philharmonie Westfalen, Recklinghausen, April, August, September  2006
EBS EBS6142 [64.04] 




Experience Classicsonline

The Bayer Music Group and their label EBS have a good track record when it comes to the music of Max Bruch. Someone there must like him. Surprisingly they still issue an LP, although it has been transferred to CD (EBS 6071), which includes the Overture to the opera Die Loreley and the viola Romance Op.85, while the other two works on it - albeit with different conductor and orchestra - appear on the discs under review, the Suite on Russian folksongs Op.79b and the First Symphony Op.28. Their website lists 15 CDs of Bruch, though one is the LP and the other misleadingly is a disc of Christmas music which includes two by Bernward Bruchhäuser-Meisemann, born a century later. Of the remaining thirteen, eight are devoted entirely to music by Bruch, while on the other five he appears with other composers. As to the works themselves, the usual suspects are there, but the choral music is worth exploration. In 2005 EBS issued the ubiquitous first violin concerto coupled with the third (Torsten Janicke the soloist on EBS 6143). The second concerto now takes its place in the 3cd-box entitled ‘The romantic symphonist’. As far as works for the violin and orchestra are concerned Bruch wrote nine, which, back in the 1980s, Philips produced as a boxed set of vinyl played by Accardo under Masur. Together with the three symphonies they are now on CD (Philips 462 164-2 and 462 167-2). The Romanze is also available on Fleur de Son 57925 and Vox Classics VXP 7906, while Naxos now has it together with the Konzertstück as part of 8.557689. The same team of Fedotov/Yablonsky on Naxos 8.557395 couples the Scottish Fantasy with the relatively unfamiliar Serenade Op.75. It is to be hoped that such imaginative policies on the part of the independent record companies will dispel the commonly held belief that Bruch was a one-work composer of that concerto and little else.

At the heart of the EBS box-set in their series Der romantische Sinfoniker lies the three symphonies, previously recorded by Masur (on Philips, who reissued them with different fillers) and Conlon (EMI), while Hickox did only 1 and 3 with the LSO on Chandos. In fact there are no less than twelve recordings of the three symphonies, five, three and four of each respectively, which made an impact in their day (1868, 1870 and 1882) and which went some way to filling the black hole between Schumann’s last and Brahms’ first over a remarkably long period of a quarter century. Carl Dahlhaus credits no one with writing any meaningful symphonies during this time, but it is becoming easier to take issue with his view, thanks to the unearthing of works by Bruch, Dietrich, Lachner, Hiller, Rufinatscha, Gernsheim, Draeseke, Volkmann and others. They are not to be dismissed out of hand. 

In 1870 Bruch opted for a freelance career as a composer after five years in post as a conductor/composer at Coblenz and Sondershausen respectively. This pattern of alternating the security of a paid conducting post with the freelance option as a composer would persist until 1890 when he became professor of composition in Berlin. Bruch never again achieved the success of his first violin concerto (1868). Curiously it was through his secular oratorios such as Odysseus in 1870 that his fame spread, even to England, where its success eventually led to his appointment to Liverpool 1880-1883.  As far as violin concertos were concerned, he attempted a second early in 1874, but his love life was going through a troubled patch, and after completing the first movement he lost his muse, the rest of the work becoming no more than ‘a glimmer of ideas’. He was, however, pleased with what he had written and encouraged by positive responses from his friends and colleagues, so he decided to publish it as a single movement Romanze in A minor Op.42. Based on two typically lyrical melodies, according to one critic it was based on the Nordic saga of ‘Gudrun’s Lament by the Sea’, but knowing the composer’s aversion to programmatic music and what was happening to him at the time, it is far more likely to be subtitled ‘Max’s Lament by the Rhine for Amalie Heydweiller’, whose love he had just lost. As the first movement to his projected second violin concerto it is unusual in that it is slow, and interestingly Bruch persists with this idea when he did indeed come to write that concerto three years later in 1877. 

By the time Bruch came to write the Konzertstück he was over seventy years old. It was written for the American violinist Maud Powell, and again it became a truncated concerto, although this time in two linked movements rather than one. It was dedicated to Willy Hess, who Bruch had helped to return from his post as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to teach at the Berlin Music Academy (he had also led the Hallé Orchestra and frequently performed Bruch’s concertos). Powell gave its first performance at the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut on 8 June 1911, and part of the work was subsequently recorded, the first music by Bruch to be so. ‘She has played the Adagio alone, half of it cut, into a machine (!!!). I told her a few truths’, he wrote later that month. This Adagio uses the Irish folksong ‘The Little Red Lark’ underlining the composer’s love for folk music. It is a beautiful movement, in slow 3/8 time reminiscent of the Adagio from Op.26, written soon after the death of his great friend and adviser on matters of the violin, Joachim, and is the last music Bruch wrote for solo violin and orchestra. Four decades after the G minor concerto of 1868, the circle had been completed. 

Ursula Schoch’s playing in the five works in which she features is both sweet-toned and full-blooded in sound and passionately committed, at the same time technically solid with clean intonation and phrasing; the performance of the Konzertstück should bring a tear to the eye. She plays a 1755 Guadagnini, and now holds a chair among the first violins of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. She clearly loves Bruch’s music, and the orchestra and two conductors serve her well in their accompaniments, despite what appears to have been a mishap in the editing process when a wrong note was missed by both sound engineer and conductor in the second movement of the Konzertstück. In the third bar of letter G on the third beat, the first trombone plays C natural instead of C flat, resulting in a dissonance Bruch would never have written; (CD 2, track 5 at 4’ 35”) this minor 7th in the chord of D flat major is a dominant 7th in the home key of G flat major. Despite this oversight, conductor of the first volume Johannes Wildner gets to grips with the symphonies after a somewhat tense No.1, the first movement starts sluggishly while the third has some unwarranted rushing in places (maybe to get through weak passages more quickly or the result of inconsistency of tempo at retakes). One has to accept Bruch’s occasional paucity of ideas in his finales, and his reliance on the arpeggio and the frequent string-scrubbing (which Bruckner was soon to perfect) to get his effects. Also what Herr Wildner did not know was my discovery of an original Intermezzo by Bruch, which was the symphony’s original second movement, but he removed it after two performances in Sondershausen. What Bruch then did was to call the Quasi Fantasia the symphony’s third (slow) movement, where originally it was linked (and remains so despite dropping the Intermezzo) to the Finale. 

In the second volume Dutchman Theo Wolters is at the helm and proves a sensitive accompanist to Frau Schoch in the Serenade Op.75. This is a fine work heard too little in concerts, and given its length and complexity, it is in all but name really a fourth concerto. Ensemble is excellent, as it is also in the charming and beautifully played Romanze Op.42. Bruch always complained that little beyond the G minor concerto was ever programmed, but he hardly helped his cause by writing single movement works (besides those for the violin, there were also four for cello and one for viola). These days they are uneconomic (in exchange for a soloist’s fee a concert promoter will want his musical pound of flesh) but perhaps it was easier in the composer’s time when programmes often consisted of many short works. The Konzertstück consists of two linked movements and ends slowly and quietly, the second symphony is in three movements without a scherzo, all of which defied public taste in his and our day. On the other hand the Serenade is unconventionally long in four movements. For such a conservative traditionalist, Bruch was remarkably bold and inventive when it came to formatting his compositions. Whether it took one, two or four movements to say what he had to say, so be it. In the case of the Swedish Dances Op.63, he even advocated making a selection, feeling that to listen to the Introduction followed by fifteen dances was indigestible for its audience. For someone who usually complained that his music was not performed enough, here he was suggesting making a selection. Finally the Suite on Russian folksongs Op.79b is a good example of Bruch’s love of folk music, for him throughout his life a constantly rich seam of endless melody. From it, and to get away from an overdose of Chopin’s Funeral March, the Soviet leadership might well have used its sombre third movement Funeral March for one of their deceased leaders when they were dropping like flies in the early 1980s. As played here, the work sounds very idiomatic, the material for the final movement of the four will sound familiar, being the ‘Song of the Volga Boatman’. In both discs, the orchestra produces gloriously sumptuous sounds with fine tone and many stylishly shaped solos though the leader could have been closer miked in his two brief solos in the Funeral March. 

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players, hence the billing as a SACD premiere recording. For collectors of everything they can get their hands on by Bruch, apart from the sound, there is nothing new here in the way of repertoire, but nevertheless they are both highly enjoyable discs and very much worth the having.

Christopher Fifield 


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