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MAX BRUCH (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy Op. 46 (1880) [32.45]
Serenade Op. 75 (1899) [39.53]
Maxim Fedotov (violin)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
recorded in Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio, Moscow on 27 September-7 October 2003
NAXOS 8. 557395 [72.38]

Over twenty years ago the violinist Salvatore Accardo did Bruch a great favour by recording all the composerís concerted works (nine of them) for violin and orchestra. These recordings are still available on the Philips label. My 1988 biography of the composer - the first written about him, even in his native Germany, and due to for a reprint in paperback in summer 2005 - has seen a marked increase in the exploration of the composerís one hundred published works. This was followed by a successful effort to wean the public off its commonly held belief that Bruch was a one-work composer, of the first violin concerto in G minor Op.26 and little else. For several years that work topped Classic FMís Easter Parade called the Hall of Fame, so much so that they stopped calling me for my comments each year. There was, and remains, little more to say of that great piece and its miraculous Adagio. True, Kol Nidrei, a too-short work for cello and orchestra and thus tricky to programme, and, back with to the violin repertory, the Scottish Fantasy are by no means unknown. However of the other six works for violin, we hear relatively little. So itís a welcome, if slightly safe-playing approach for Naxos to couple the Serenade with the Fantasy.

There are a couple of misconceptions when it comes to Bruch. He was neither Jewish (despite Kol Nidrei and the Three Hebrew Melodies for a cappella chorus), nor a traveller who collected folksongs on which he based his music. Folksong was very important to him, particularly those of northern lands such as Scandinavia and Scotland, but he never visited the countries in question. Despite living in Liverpool for three years (1880-1883), he never travelled to Scotland, though at one point, during his tenure in Liverpool, there was serious discussion of him taking charge of a proposed new Music Academy in Edinburgh, but the plan fell through due to lack of funds. Mendelssohn, greatly admired by Bruch, famously visited the country and was inspired to write an overture and symphony, but for his sources Bruch relied mainly on James Johnsonís collection of folksongs called The Scots Musical Museum. Here four are used, Auld Rob Morris, The Dusty Miller, Iím doon for lack of Johnnie and Scots wha hae. The Fantasy was written over the winter of 1879-1880 while Bruch was living in Berlin (1878-1880). Bruch credited Sir Walter Scott with its inspiration, such as the Introduction which he said depicted Ďan old bard who contemplates a ruined castle and laments the glorious times of oldí.

The four-movement Serenade is virtually a fourth violin concerto. It is certainly longer than its three predecessors, and, like all Bruchís creations for the solo violin, he was well advised on string technique by professional colleagues. From the mid-1860s until the First World War these had included Ferdinand David, Otto von Königslow, Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate and Willy Hess. Significantly, Bruchís music barely changes in its style over the same forty-year period; it remains tuneful, crafted, melodically strong, but harmonically and structurally unadventurous, and hardly ever free from the influences of either Mendelssohn or Schumann. Bruchís obsession with folk music continued (free use of a Nordic melody used in the first movement and occasionally reminiscent of Auld Rob Morris in the last) with the Serenade, written at a hilltop house in the Rhineland during August 1899 for Sarasate. Joachim edited the solo part and gave its first semi-public performance on 19 December that year at the Berlin Hochschule. Its official premiere followed on 15 May 1901 in Paris with the Belgian violinist Joseph Débroux under Camille Chevillard conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra. It had a fair success, including Boston in 1903 with Marie Nichols as soloist and Hess vacating his leaderís chair to conduct.

Fedotovís playing is both passionately fiery and sweet in tone; the Fantasy is hugely demanding in terms of technical virtuosity. Its double-stopping has its own notoriety within the violin fraternity. He plays it with consummate ease, despite a rather breathless tempo taken by Yablonsky for the central Allegro; listen out for the exquisite duet between flute and soloist about four minutes into this third track. Orchestral detail is rather fogged by too much resonance, though the horns have a good day, while the harpist, virtually a second soloist in the work, should have been given more of the prominence accorded in the Finale. Bruch tends to over-orchestrate, so clarity and transparency of detail become vital ingredients, and conductors tend to lose themselves too often in the intense romanticism of his music. Fedotov, on the other hand, clearly enjoys the more ruminative passages in the Finale. The Serenade gets a convincing performance, the slightly trivial second-movement March saved from any banality by energetic forward drive and wistfully shaped rubato in its contrasting slightly slower sections. Although the zenith of his success was achieved early, way back in 1867 in the Adagio of his G minor concerto, Bruch continues to excel at his slow movements, and the one here is as beautiful as any. The Finale somewhat overstays its welcome, questioning the wisdom of a fourth movement in the first place, but that is why the work is a Serenade and not a Concerto. For those wishing to acquaint themselves with beautiful music, familiar and unfamiliar, this disc is more than value for money.

Christopher Fifield

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