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]
rec. 1983 - no location or specific date given. ADD
DYNAMIC DM8024 [53:32]
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.
Worthy repertoire that deserves but does not demand to be heard.