> Max Bruch [CF]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Max BRUCH (1865-1920)
Swedish Dances Op.63
Serenade for String Orchestra op. Posth.
Schön Ellen Op.24

Claudia Braun (soprano)
Thomas Laske (baritone)
Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: George Hanson
Recorded at Wuppertal, Germany, July 2001
MDG 335 1096-2 [50í 24"]


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Without wishing to sound patronising, the standards of German orchestras from the so-called B list of opera houses and towns are remarkably good. I myself conducted one such orchestra last year, coincidentally in a festival concert of Bruchís music (well not really much of a coincidence for I am his only biographer, a source recognisably plundered by the booklet writer of this CD with regrettably no due acknowledgement) and I did some of the Swedish Dances to start the programme, as this disc does. Bruch never meant them to be played all at one sitting, but one cannot blame a company for recording all sixteen, even in their original format for solo piano. Hansonís tempi are sometimes too fast, other times too slow, but his orchestra sounds fine, especially the woodwinds. Bruch loved the cor anglais and the player here would surely have pleased him. Hanson does not sentimentalise the rich melodies but paces and phrases with care yet without losing forward drive, especially the 13th with its divine solo for the leader of the orchestra (succulently sweet here). The Dvorak/Brahms flavour of some of the dances is especially well caught.

The Serenade for Strings is a reworking of a rather overblown orchestral suite written a dozen years before in 1904, but though the old man was in his late seventies, isolated and devastated by the effects of the First World War, he had not his touch in scoring for orchestra. Itís somewhat of a misnomer for the title here has omitted the crucial words Ďon Swedish melodiesí and itís just that element of folk music which so attracted Bruch throughout his life, and itís also misleading of the booklet writer even to mention the possibility of any programmatic content, even though she alludes to my assumption that they were posthumous additions by the unscrupulous publisher Rudolf Eichmann. It was more than an assumption; it was a fact. Bruchís music has no need of titles, and this is a work which takes a place besides Griegís Holberg Suite or Dag Wirénís Serenade. Hansonís string section does it justice, nicely shaded playing, delicate or rough-edged tone where required, wide-ranging dynamic contrasts; in short they give a performance which captures the essence of Bruchís style through and through, apart from one overdone portamento in the fourth movement Andante sostenuto. The finale is beautifully delicate, especially the very end of the work.

Another misnomer on this disc is its subtitle ĎOrchestral Worksí, for Schön Ellen Op.24 is a choral ballad, for two solo singers, chorus and orchestra. Here too we are in the realm of folk music, in this case Scotland for which Bruch held a life-long affinity, though I can find no evidence that he ever went there. Even so the Scottish link is tenuous. Set at the Siege of Lucknow in India in 1857 it relates how Ellen predicts its relief by the regiment led by the Campbells but her foresight is only because she has acute hearing and can hear the regimental marching song before anyone else does. The Campbells are coming therefore features throughout. How one can sing or conduct this work with a straight face is hard these days, though it helps if you sing it in German and avoid overdoing the rum-ti-tum nature of its 6/8 rhythm. Claudia Braun pronounces it ĎKembellsí so that helps, while Sir Edward is rechristened Sir Edvard by the male members of the chorus. Thomas Laske copes well with the high tessitura of the baritone line, a feature developed in Bruchís later secular oratorios with Heldenbaritones in title roles such as Odysseus or Moses. Thereís no other way to present this style (itís a couple of years to go before the first violin concerto of 1867) other than the way it was meant and all here, soloists, chorus, orchestra and conductor, do just that especially at its jubilant ending.

Christopher Fifield

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