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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Das Lied von der Glocke op. 45 (1878) [109:26]
Eleonore Marguerre (soprano); Annette Markert (alto); Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor); Mario Hoff (baritone)
Philharmonischer Chor Prag
Staatskapelle Weimar/Jac van Steen
rec. Konzertmitschnitt CCN Weimarhalle, Weimar. Germany, 31 Dec 2004-1 Jan 2005. DDD
CPO 777 130-2 [55:57 + 53:29]


After having reviewed Christopher Fifield's book 'Max Bruch - His Life and Works' (2005, Boydell) I could not resist the temptation to hear one of Bruch's secular oratorios.

This one was written during the years between the Second Violin Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy and Kol Nidrei.

The Lay of the Bell (or The Song of the Bell) was started in Bonn in 1877, completed in the composerís beloved Bergisch Gladbach and premiered in Cologne in 1878 conducted by Bruch himself. The bells of Cologne Cathedral inspired Bruch quite as much as the reflective and philosophically discursive poem by Schiller to whom Bruch dedicated the work. In addition it evinces an elevation of the national spirit and a sort of universal fraternal idealism. This blazes out in choral fervour in Heil'ge Ordnung (CD2 tr. 9) clearly indebted to Beethoven's Ode to Joy setting; also by Schiller. The parallels are reinforced by the impassioned cries of 'Freude' by the bass at the start of Freude hatt mir Gott gegeben (CD2 tr. 12). While not at all religious the atmosphere is reverential. Mr Fifield (who really should have been invited to write the CPO liner note) identifies the strands of inspiration that impelled Bruch to produce this finely constructed and poetic work: Friede, Freude, Freiheit (Peace, Joy, Freedom).

There is also another message which is carolled among the quartet of singers in Der mann muss hinaus (CD1 tr. 9): a hymn to domesticity, duty and delight: man, the worker, the winner of gold and woman, thrifty, mistress of the house, gentle, firm in the raising of children in the household. This message is pressed gently home by the tune Anglophone listeners will know as Holy Night. From the perspective of the twenty-first century these sentiments may well cause a shiver as we recall how closely this chimes with the home, table and children role of women in the Kaiser's Germany and in Hitler's Third Reich.

Bruch made the work a major feature of the Birmingham Triennial in 1879 where it was praised for its 'charming freshness'. 'Charming' is a word the meaning of which has been debased over the years and is now taken to refer to lightweight attraction. The Lay is not light but beguiles in its searching lyrical roundedness as in the O zarte sehnsucht (CD1 tr. 6) and Einen Blick nech dem Grabe (CD1 tr. 14).

The singing of baritone Mario Hoff is completely compelling, his tone honeyed and strong if not quite immune from vibrato. He sings with deep affekt in Festgemauert in der Erden (CD1 tr.2). One can hear at this point how this work might have fed into the psyche of Franz Schmidt in his writing of The Book with Seven Seals.

Not everything is curvaceously lyrical. There is for example a galloping mighty charge for chorus and orchestra in Der Mann muß hinaus in feindliche leben. Bruch returns to his finest feminine form in the soprano's aria Wohltatig ist des Feuers Macht. But he brings us up short with a vividly orchestrated evocation of ringing silvery hammers in the exciting choral scherzo Hort ihr's wimmern.

The Lay is in two parts: one complete on each disc. That serene reverence mentioned above returns in the half cortege-half slow-motion bell-swing of Von dem Dome schwer und Bang with its Brahmsian contentedness. Bis die Glocke sich verkuhlet is again reminiscent of Beethoven in the Choral Symphony while the buoyancy of Munter Fordert seine Schritte looks to Mozart's Jupiter and the first two Beethoven symphonies.

In the final three tracks Bruch leaves us in no doubt that his ambition was of the highest, his aim to exult in freedom and peace and through celebration to produced exaltation.

This is not the first recording. It would be good to hear from anyone who knows the Thorofon set on DCTH 2291/2 which uses Saxon State/Dresden forces.

This experience has whetted my appetite to hear Bruch's other oratorios including Odysseus Op. 41 (recorded by the ever-enterprising Botstein on Koch), Moses Op. 67 (Orfeo), Achilleus Op. 50, Das Feuerkreuz Op. 52, Der Letzte Abschied Op. 76, Damajanti Op. 78, Heldenfeier Op. 89 and Die Stimme der Mutter Erde Op. 93.

Rob Barnett

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