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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Symphony No.3 in E Op.51 (1883) [38.01]
Suite on Russian Themes Op.79b (1903) [21.08]
Hungarian State SO/Manfred Honeck
rec in the Hungaroton Studio, Budapest 28-31 May 1987
NAXOS 8.555985 [59.09]



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With a performance of the third symphony to conduct within days of hearing this disc, it has been much in the forefront of my mind, and despite reviews already posted on the website by two colleagues, I feel moved to add an opinion, particularly about the symphony. I must also declare myself as Bruch’s biographer and probably among both his fiercest champions and his harshest critics. He tackled all recognised forms, excelling in the concerted works for violin, with the first head and shoulders above anything else he penned. His choral music needs more attention than it gets on the performing circuit (there’s a reasonable amount on record, though rather paradoxically of the larger, therefore more expensive, works to mount when it comes to planning a season), and I applaud Gerard Schwarz’s enthusiasm with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Bruch is also a top-class melodist with the folkmusic from colder lands (Scotland to Iceland via Sweden and Russia) a favoured source. On this disc the Suite is given a robust performance despite the arid acoustics of the recording studio, which has hopefully given way since 1987 (the year of this take) to something more resonant. Honeck lingers sympathetically where Bruch shines the focus on his favourite instruments, the combination of harp and cor anglais at the start a typical example. The adagio sostenuto has its vital funereal quality despite some internal rough blending and suspect-to-dire intonation within the brass and winds. Its sweet-toned violin solo is stylishly shaped followed by a paced outburst to the climax, where the strings bask in the joys of another of his melodies. The energetic ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ suffers most from the dry Hungaroton’s studio, the cymbal clashes in danger of making it all sound like a parody and too daft for words.

Honeck’s view of the symphony is frankly perverse and does nothing to help a work which, by its finale, is in danger of ailing for lack of original ideas, with that ever-perplexing Finale problem rearing its ugly ahead yet again, and Bruch only one of very many who have failed to solve it. Honeck’s tempi are often fundamentally wrong, though to say that the slow music is too fast and the fast music too slow is too simplistic (the scherzo for example is too fast). A pity, because it all gets off to a good start with the introduction, despite the quartet of horns sounding too saxophone-like with their wide vibrato (again a matter of whether or not you like the Eastern European way of playing), and the first movement proper has a sense of balance until the second subject when we’re back to those horns again. Honeck lingers at the start of the Adagio, then, after this opening section takes Bruch’s ‘ma non troppo’ too literally and chooses a speed in which, as a consequence, phrasing lacks breath and space. Basic intonation (between the high clarinet line and strings should never have been passed) is something that persistently worries on this disc. The orchestra play the scherzo ably enough but have been set too challenging a tempo to achieve its more subtle moments, especially at the scampering trio. Honeck was clearly paying lip service to Bruch’s adoration of Mendelssohn, but though it shares the agility of say the Scherzo from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s not in the same league. Those words ‘ma non troppo’ appear once again at the start of the finale, but here Honeck ignores it, and has done so at his peril. This introduction must be played with a feel for two in a bar (alla breve) not in a turgid four, and much of the orchestral balance has to favour a more translucent approach, a thinning out of textures by careful judgement of dynamics.

I wish I had not pulled it down from the shelf.

Christopher Fifield



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