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,
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
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.