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Download: Classicsonline

Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat, Op. 28 [27:27]
Symphony No. 2 in F minor, Op. 36 [34:05]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Michael Halasz
rec. 17-20 March, 2008, CCN Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany
Experience Classicsonline

These are disappointing symphonies. Max Bruch’s violin concerti are each quite unconventional, and the first two have truly immense melodic appeal (and a welcome conciseness). But his first two symphonies, on the evidence of this album, match a sort of sordid stereotype of mid-19th century German romanticism: they are too long for their material, emotionally generic and completely forgettable. Bruch seems to have known all the clichés of romantic music and angled for them all: the First Symphony is bucolic and pastoral, with an elfin scherzo; the Second Symphony launches in a sturm-und-drang mood, all bustle and sternness, and features a no-pause transition from slow movement to finale that represents a move from darkness to light, from a troubled mood to joyful thanks. In other words, we have heard this all before elsewhere.

That would be no problem if the music retained our interest. But the unforgettable tunes Bruch lavished on his solo violin writing is simply not in evidence here. There are many very pretty sounds: the scherzo of the First and finale of the Second, especially, feature quite a few. But nothing makes a lasting impression. Partake in a listening game: challenge a friend to hum a single tune, any tune, from either of these symphonies five minutes after the album is over. The poor friend had better make a very small wager. 

I am, as it happens, an admirer of many symphonies from this period. Bruch’s First was composed in 1867 and his Second in 1870. Other composers were working on vastly more interesting music at the time: Joachim Raff’s marvelous (and quite inventive) Symphony No. 4 was completed in 1871, Johann Kalliwoda’s Overture No. 16, composed in the early 1860s and available on a CPO disc, exhibits a considerably more advanced musical language, and Johan Svendsen’s amiable, brilliantly constructed Symphony No. 1 was written in 1867. Among more famous composers, Anton Bruckner had already written three symphonies by 1870 (the 00, 0 and 1), Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Daydreams” Symphony was composed in 1866, Dvořák’s immensely underrated Symphony No. 2 was penned in 1865 and Borodin’s Second Symphony was begun in 1869. Even if we compare Bruch’s exclusively to symphonic works in the Germanic idiom these pieces seem unusually blasé: witness Kalliwoda’s fiercely vivacious orchestral language, evident decades earlier, or Raff’s intriguing Fourth, with a scherzo that easily outclasses Bruch’s. Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Franz Berwald’s Sinfonie singulière speak in considerably more advanced musical languages despite having arrived on the scene decades before. 

Am I comparing apples to oranges? Probably. But it is hard to imagine a listener who will need this album, even if it is nice to know that the music has been recorded. The pastoral movements here are faceless and bland, the dramatic movements feel routine and emotionless, the thematic material never captures the listener’s interest and the orchestration is serious-minded with an unwarranted sense of self-importance. Perhaps the First Symphony’s scherzo is worth an individual track download. 

The harshness of this review should not be considered a complaint about the worthy performances by the Staatskapelle Weimar or the heroic conducting of Michael Halasz. Conductor and orchestra want to believe in this music, and try their hardest to persuade us of its worth. But Max Bruch did not make their job easy. 

As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc.

Brian Reinhart

























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