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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
String Quartet No.1 in C minor Op.9 (1856) [25:05]
String Quartet No.2 in E major Op.10 (1860) [28:27]
Quartetto Academica
rec. 1983 - no location or specific date given. ADD
DYNAMIC DM8024 [53:32]

Experience Classicsonline

No matter how often I remind myself of it, the fact that Max Bruch died as late as 1920 comes as something of a shock. His music seems to so epitomise the essence of 19th Century German Romanticism that the idea that he lived beyond World War I and a good seven years after The Rite of Spring seems all but impossible. Was there ever a composer who stayed so true to his roots and implacably opposed to ‘modern’ trends?

So it is particularly interesting to hear this rare pair of string quartets - his only offering in the medium - the first written when he was young firebrand of just 18 and the second four years later - to see if he ever challenged convention. The quick answer is no. What does strike one is how skilfully and maturely he handles the material. This is no example of the youthful heart ruling the head. In fact just the reverse; both quartets are carefully - too carefully? - constructed with the standard four movement structures dominated by sonata-form first movements, slow movements second, scherzi third and brisk finales. These are far finer than simply apprentice works let alone student pieces, Bruch shows real understanding of string writing with the part writing never less than effective and rarely sounding awkward or ungainly. The problem - unless you are happy to bathe in non-specific-Austro-German-generalised-romanticism is that they rarely rise above the efficient and never into the inspired. Influences - and influences at eighteen are surely only reasonable - are of a muscularised Mendelssohn and shades of Schubert. This can be heard in both quartets but unsurprisingly to a lesser degree in the later work. Another change that can be heard is Bruch’s superior part writing in the later work but that does pay dividends in the song-without-words simplicity of the first quartet’s slow movement - played with the requisite poise by the Quartetto Academica here. The only formal ‘novelty’ is that the scherzo movement of the 2nd Quartet ends with a recapitulation of the trio material which gives it an asymmetrical structure. Schubert in most present in the first quartet’s finale which apes the galloping rhythmic pulse of Death and the Maiden without that masterpiece’s inherent structural coherence or drama - this is most apparent around 2:20 [track 4] where a singing violin 1 is supported by repeating chords in the middle parts and an obsessive cello figure. Again the quartet play this passage with real skill and subtle pointing of the musical material.
Although just three minutes longer than its companion the second quartet aspires to being something altogether bigger. This is clear from the opening Allegro maestoso where the four instruments sustain chords implying something grander than ‘chamber’ music. Again heroic Mendelssohn seems to be the order of the day but what Bruch fatally lacks at this stage of career - and perhaps always with the exception of the famous concerto and Scottish Fantasy - was the ability to give his compositions a steely backbone of melodic memorability which draws the listener inexorably forward. The tunes here are good but lack the little hook of greatness that finds you humming them on the morning bus. That being said, the slow movement again has a sombre beauty that does impress. Bruch’s skill at voicing the part writing to maximise the richness of the chords shows his innate technical understanding even at such a young age. By the finale of the second quartet Bruch is really beginning to hit his stride and the music has a surging exciting energy that brings the disc to a powerful close. It did make me pause for thought and wonder what German composers like Bruch could have done if only they had used nationalistic elements like so many of their fellow European contemporaries to break free of the rectitude of the Austro-German musical hegemony. A dash of a dumka or some personally programmatic revelation could have worked wonders!
Dynamic’s presentation of this disc is little short of shoddy. It is listed as Volume 24 in a series collectively called ‘Delizie Musicali’. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to this ‘edition’; volume 23 is of Barsanti Concerti Grossi and 25 is Hummel Piano works. Clearly it’s simply an platform for repackaging some back catalogue. That this is the case only becomes clear after some liner-note rummaging - in tiny print on the back page it states this is ADD recorded in 1983 - no other recording information is given. Neither does the Quartetto Academica merit any detail except for the player’s names. Having not heard of this quartet, but coming increasingly impressed by their understated skill and musicianship - the leader Mariana Sirbu is especially fine I was not surprised to read that she founded the quartet in 1968 and they went on to win many quartet prizes in the early 1970s. Very occasionally there are tiny tiny slips in ensemble and intonation but that would be eliminated in the modern digital studio but overall the impression is of a very fine group indeed with an exceptional leader. Don’t be worried by the ADD recording either. This is a good recording with an unfussy natural balance between all four players. In 1983 around 25 minutes per LP side was pretty good measure. Here it makes for a rather short 53 minute CD. That allied to the paucity of the presentation makes Dynamic’s mid-price price point seem rather reckless. The only competition comes from CPO with an identical programme from the Mannheim Quartet. I have not heard that disc so cannot comment - certainly on musical terms alone this current disc would give little ground to any. If you are looking for an introduction to the chamber music world of Bruch I would direct you towards a different CPO disc - the one featuring three Op. Posth. works including a stunning String Octet played by master violinist Ulf Hoelscher and a hand-picked ensemble. For sure it could have been written any time after 1860 rather than 1920 but its a gem which the two quartets here aspire to without quite achieving.
Worthy repertoire that deserves but does not demand to be heard. However, a welcome opportunity to hear a fine string quartet.
Nick Barnard  














































































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