Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Kol Nidrei for Violin and Orchestra Op.47 (1880) [9.45]
Romance for Viola and Orchestra Op.85 (1911) [9.29]
Overture Scherz, List und Rache Op.1 (1858) [6.37]
Serenade on Swedish Folk Melodies Op.posth (1916) [13.23]
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26 (1868) [24.42]
Alexandre de Costa (violin)
Gilad Karni (viola)
Orchestre Symphonique Bienne/Thomas Rösner
rec. Palais de Congrès, Bienne 21 March 2008; Konzertsaal Solothurn, Switzerland 8-10 September 2009
GUILD GMCD 7338 [64:41]

This is a fascinating disc, both in choice and execution of repertoire. It’s a pity that it ends with the one work hardly in need of another recording. In view of the clear intent to explore the byways of Bruch’s considerable output, why not the Romance Op.42 or In memoriam Op.65, as we have only Accardo’s fine pioneering versions coupled into the three symphonies on Philips, or the Adagio appassionato Op.57; Accardo again, but also Chloë Hanslip amongst a medley of shorter violin concerted works on Warner Classics. On the other hand the presence of the G minor concerto serves as a reminder, if one were needed, that it was Bruch’s greatest achievement, despite a generally, not wholly, stylish account from the Canadian violinist Alexandre de Costa. Bruch would have given a tongue-lashing to whoever insisted upon its inclusion as he felt he had other works of equal merit that the public should be given the chance to hear.

The disc starts with his arrangement of Kol Nidrei for violin. The problem is that listening to it, one is constantly reminded of the far better original cello version. Here the violin is persistently trying to sound like a cello when on the G string, while passages of much higher writing just do not convince. A safe compromise would be the viola version, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the cello is best suited to this wonderfully haunting and expressive music. The Romance for the viola has been beautifully recorded by Gérard Caussé (Warner Apex) but this is also a touching account by Gilad Karni, and one which inspires the Orchestre Symphonique Bienne to full-toned playing, with the harp judiciously placed to the fore … as it was in Kol Nidrei. The Serenade for Strings on Swedish Folk Songs is a charming late work, written when Bruch was in his late seventies, but there is a youthful spring in the step reflected by some witty passages as well as the simplicity of folk music. This is a work which should be heard more often in concerts for string orchestras. It makes a good opener and can withstand being followed by the greater string orchestral works of Dvorák, Tchaikovsky and Elgar. The strings here acquit themselves very well, taut and balanced ensemble, with stylish use of portamento in expressive phrases, particularly by the cellos.

Probably of greatest interest, however, is the overture to Bruch’s first opera, Scherz, List und Rache (‘Joke, Cunning and Revenge’), literally his first published work, Opus 1. All we have of this one-act Singspiel, its text adapted from the original Goethe by the music critic Ludwig Bischoff, is the piano score, but this is how it was first conceived as a salon opera in 1856. Two years later and under his teacher Ferdinand Hiller’s guidance, it had been orchestrated. Sadly any full score and parts were lost even in Bruch’s day. From Hiller’s diaries and Bruch’s recollections we know that the first salon performance occurred on 4 May 1856, and that on 28 February 1857 Hiller was supervising the scoring process. At that salon occasion it appears that Bruch sang the villain of the piece as well as being one of the two pianists required for the overture, after which Hiller continued alone at the keyboard. The plot is typical of the genre. A married couple is tricked of their inheritance (100 florins bequeathed from their old nursemaid), by an unscrupulous doctor and plot their revenge. Scapin, disguised as a beggar, enters the doctor’s service as an assistant. His wife Scapine comes asking for medical help of the doctor, who is in the act of counting his ill-gotten gains. From elsewhere in the house, Scapin creates a diversion with cries of help (‘Hilfe’, the notes F and H a cryptic clue to Ferdinand Hiller’s initials, the pupil calling to his teacher for help), and while the doctor is out of the room, Scapine substitutes an empty packet of arsenic for the medication prescribed by the doctor. Both men return to witness Scapine’s ‘death’. The doctor panics and offers Scapin 50 florins to dispose of her body in the cellar; once alone Scapine ‘revives’ and cries out, threatening to expose the doctor as a murderer unless she receives another 50 florins. The couple depart with their 100 florins regained, the doctor meanwhile bemoans his loss.

The scored work was first performed on 14 January 1858 at the City Theatre in Cologne, the city of his birth, and was probably its sole outing, after which the orchestral material disappeared. The orchestration for this recording has been made by Stefans Grové, South Africa’s most eminent composer, 88 this month. Grové has always prided himself on being able to orchestrate on paper. We will never know what Bruch did, unless by some miracle the music resurfaces, but on the whole the result here is both viable and satisfactory. One detail may have escaped Grové, or he deliberately ignored it. On page 9 of the piano duet’s printed score there is the one and only indication of an instrument in the overture - later there are others in the opera itself. The second subject melody in the upper part of the Primo part is quite clearly marked ‘clar.’, so why Grové opted for the oboe instead of the clarinet is a mystery, especially when, upon the return of that melody, he does give it to the clarinet. Apart from an excess of timpani and trombone, the result is a fair response to the challenge. In 1858, what would Bruch have been influenced by when writing his three-hander, one-act comedy? Most likely the answer would have been the one-act operas of Weber or the operas of Rossini. The opening Andante gives a clue to the latter with its Italian semi-quaver upbeat, rather than the ponderously dignified German ones we hear in Mozart’s overture to his Die Zauberflöte, and the tunes that follow have both Rossinian wit and Weber-style accompaniments. Bischoff described it as ‘freshly grown in German earth, [full of] melody, characterisation, movement and life, and rich in true musical comedy’. What he and his like were hoping for was a counterweight to Wagner - neither Mendelssohn nor Schumann had done so in the field of opera. Regrettably Bruch was also not up to the task. His Die Loreley (1863) had a limited shelf-life, while his setting of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale entitled Hermione (1870) fared even worse. The complete piano version of Bruch’s Op.1 made it to vinyl in 1983 (Capriccio C 30 034/1-2), with his Lieder und Gesänge Op.49 as a filler, and there the overture comes in thirty seconds faster than the orchestral version. On this CD Rösner keeps it all as light as possible, despite some exuberance from his brass section. In these days of shoe-string opera, the whole work might be resurrected, but it would require an English translation, and for practical reasons the overture would have to be reshaped for one piano rather than indulging the extravagance of two. It just goes to show what private salons were equipped with in the mid-19th century Germany, when it comes to the number of pianos they had.

This CD is good in parts, and there’s cause to be grateful to Guild in assembling an unusual collection, even though it does these works no service to be measured at the last hurdle against ‘that’ violin concerto. ‘Every fortnight another [violinist] comes to me wanting to play the first concerto’, the composer wrote on 26 November 1887. ‘“I cannot listen to it anymore. Did I perhaps write just this one? Go away and play the other concertos, which are just as good, if not better”’.

Christopher Fifield

Good in parts, and there’s cause to be grateful to Guild in assembling an unusual collection