Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Pieces for cello and orchestra:
Kol Nidrei, op. 47 [9:58]
Canzone, op. 55 [8:06]
Adagio, op. 56 [7:50]
Romanze, op. 85 (arr. Kleinhapl) [8:29]
Ave Maria, op. 61 [9:09]
Suite on Russian folk melodies, op. 79b [19:26]
Friedrich Kleinhapl (cello);
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jan Kučera
rec. November 2010, Domovina Studio, Prague. DDD
Stereo/multichannel hybrid SACD playable on SACD, CD or DVD player
ARS PRODUKTION ARS 38 090 [63:48]

For someone who was not a string player, Max Bruch wrote a fair amount of music featuring a solo string instrument. Apart from the Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, the piece by which he is best known, he wrote two other violin concertos, the Scottish Fantasia, Serenade, Adagio Appassionato, Romance and Konzertstück, all for violin and orchestra as well as a concerto for viola and clarinet, and several shorter works for cello and orchestra. The best known of these is Kol Nidrei, Bruch’s setting of some Jewish traditional themes. The origin of this material incidentally gave rise to the legend that Bruch was himself Jewish.

The lyrical nature of Bruch’s music naturally lends itself to string instruments, for which he wrote with great understanding. Bruch also consulted the German cellist Robert Hausmann about bowings and other technical aspects, and this doubtless enhances the playability of the works. Bruch’s original cello compositions are supplemented with an arrangement for cello of a work originally written for another instrument. In this case it is the Romanze, op. 85, originally written for viola and orchestra; the arrangement is by the soloist, Friedrich Kleinhapl. The Suite on Russian folk melodies with which the disc concludes has no solo cello part; had it not been included, however, the playing time would only have been about 43 minutes.

Friedrich Kleinhapl is a young German cellist who has recorded substantial repertoire such as the late Beethoven, Franck, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich sonatas. On the basis of this recording he seems to have a large and very attractive sound, evenly produced over the compass of the instrument. From the beginning of the Kol Nidrei, however, it is apparent that he is recorded very close in the balance; this is not a sound one would ever hear in the concert hall. The soloist’s breathing is audible, but not distractingly so. The closeness of the recording is no hardship, however, as Kleinhapl’s sound has a lovely burnished character; the tone of the lower strings is full-blooded but never harsh. Kleinhapl takes a romantic approach to the Kol Nidrei without overdoing things, and expressive slides are kept to a minimum. This work, and the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, illustrate Bruch’s talent for setting folk melodies in a concertante style. The Canzone demonstrates the soloist’s fine legato playing and bow control. The orchestral contribution is impressive as well, with a lovely horn solo at the beginning. The string accompaniment is very well balanced against the solo line. The Adagio is also based on folk melodies, and echoes the sombre mood of the opening of the Scottish Fantasia. It is perhaps a bit long for its material, but as always Bruch’s craftsmanship is immaculate, and the orchestration is done with his usual expertise. The Romanze is a tranquil work with quite an autumnal feeling. It is followed by another arrangement, by Bruch this time, from his cantata The Fiery Cross. Kleinhapl brings out the vocal qualities in the solo line with sensitivity; his playing in this piece has some of Jacqueline Du Pré’s intensely communicative quality.

Pierre Fournier’s recording of Kol Nidrei with the Lamoureux Orchestra and Jean Martinon dates from 1961. Fournier’s performance is characteristically dignified; he takes about 30 seconds longer than Kleinhapl. The recording, reissued by DG in 1999, is very acceptable but is nowhere near as lush as that by Kleinhapl.

The “filler” on this disc is Bruch’s Suite on Russian folk melodies. This has its origin in his Songs and Dances, op. 79, for violin and piano, which were themselves based on themes from a folk song collection by Balakirev. Bruch orchestrated four of these pieces, and added an original finale to form the Suite. It certainly has a somewhat Russian feeling, particularly the Vivace section of the second movement; the rest of the movement sounds vaguely Elgarian. The next is a rather sophisticated version of a peasant dance; it is followed by a funeral march that is more dignified than tragic. The finale is a moderately festive march. Deprived of the opportunity for dialogue between soloist and orchestra, Bruch’s purely orchestral music lacks individuality. However, it makes pleasant listening, and would stump most listeners asked to guess the composer. It is very well performed - as is the case in the cello pieces - by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra and Jan Kučera.

This collection of pieces by Max Bruch is performed in fine style, and the recorded sound is sumptuous, even on a conventional CD player. Purists may find the balance a bit unrealistic; my advice would be just to lie back and enjoy it. It would be an ideal disc for after-dinner or late-evening listening. These pieces may not sound that difficult, but legato writing like this leaves the soloist with no place to hide, and Friedrich Kleinhapl’s performances radiate technical assurance. He also manages to invest these works with a depth of feeling that never becomes sentimental. I look forward to hearing this artist in more varied repertoire.

Guy Aron

Bruch’s pieces for cello and orchestra are not all on the level of the Kol Nidrei, but they make pleasant listening, and they are very well played and recorded.
re very well played and recorded.