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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Complete String Quartets
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. Posth. [26.47]
String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 9 [25.23]
String Quartet No. 2 in E Major, Op. 10 [27.39]
Diogenes Quartet
rec. 9-11 April 2014 (Ops. Posth. and 9), 17-18 February 2015 (Op. 10), Himmelfahrtskirche, Munchen-Sendling, Germany

Max Bruch came from the generation after Schumann and Mendelssohn - who were probably the strongest influences on him. He composed a small number of chamber works, which mostly come from the very beginning and end of his career. The bulk of his compositional effort focused on orchestral and choral works. He was a precocious child composer and his Septet (1849) was written when he was eleven whilst an early string quartet was the product of his fifteenth year. The piano trio, his Op. 5 (c. 1857) and the two numbered string quartets, Ops. 9 (1859) and 10 (1860) respectively, were the only works for chamber ensemble published in his lifetime - apart from the two sets of short pieces Opp. 70 and 83. His piano quintet dates from 1886 but the remaining extant works - two string quintets and a string octet that is derived from one of them - appear to have been written as late as 1918/20.

I first made the acquaintance of the two numbered quartets on a Dynamic LP made in 1983 by the Roumanian Academica Quartet - the premiere recording in fact, which is still available on CD and to download. These players were not exactly household name artists and they don't seem to have done much since. When the CD appeared, Nick Barnard was pretty complimentary about the performances (review) although other reviews noted that marked dynamics and tempi were occasionally ignored. The music didn't originally make a big impression on me so it was interesting to listen to the LP performances again to compare directly with the new CD by the German Diogenes Quartet.

The new CD scores in providing us with the first opportunity to hear Bruch's earliest quartet, referred to above. Thought lost, this score turned up in the archives of the Mozart-Stiftung in Frankfurt as recently as January 2013. Bruch had used this work to apply for the coveted scholarship of this foundation - successfully, for the three members of the jury unanimously chose the precocious work as the best entry. Louis Spohr, in particular, was deeply moved by the work and prophesied a brilliant career for the composer.

The work is certainly precociously well-crafted - with clear influences of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn but, as the accompanying (rather laboriously translated) booklet states: "that Bruch . in later years was not necessarily to rank among the revolutionaries of musical history is already clear from this fresh and straightforward youthful work". Three of the movements have a definite "Sturm und Drang" feeling about them and the young Bruch is, perhaps not surprisingly, anything but original. I can't help thinking that the precocity of Mendelssohn was on a different level of inspiration; listen, if you can, to the wonderful early E Flat quartet he also composed at the age of fourteen. Bruch would re-use the theme of the second movement Adagio in his Op. 9 quartet - although the tune is not memorable enough for that to be obvious. The fourth movement Presto, on the other hand, is more Mendelssohnian and it does have a memorable theme - albeit one that is quickly abandoned for a slower second subject, although it comes back several times, finally developing into a Fugato section.

The numbered quartets date from seven or eight years later and are similarly well-crafted. In his review Nick Barnard observed that: "the tunes here are good but lack the little hook of greatness that finds you humming them on the morning bus". I have to concur with this - these works do not strike me as significant advances over the early quartet and it is easy to see why Bruch is widely regarded as falling only within the second rank of composers.

Switching between the two recordings the differences are often subtle but they are noticeable. Op. 9, for example, has a fairly arresting opening but it soon lapses into passage work that fails to engage in the Diogenes performance. The Academica's opening just makes more sense and there is more rise and fall in the dynamics. Their slow movement is more atmospheric and the busy third movement sounds less hurried. Think of Dvorak's (second) Piano Quintet Op. 81 and you will recall that the third movement would make quite a good conclusion to the work; the finale is almost a bonus. The same can be said of both of Bruch's Opp. 9 and 10 quartets: in each case the last movement can feel tacked on and not part of what has gone before - although I felt this was rather less noticeable with the Academica's performance. Also, the viola tune in the hymn-like second subject of the last movement of Op. 10 emerges more cleanly in the earlier recording.

Comparative timings for the performances are not actually that different (the Academica take 24:50 for Op. 9 and 28:25 for Op. 10) but, in spite of the faster timing for Op. 9, the Academica still sound slightly more relaxed and they also achieve better contrast between episodes - so the music gains in interest and hangs together better. The leader uses a faster vibrato and that also helps. Critically, the music is given a chance to breathe - so it makes more sense here and is more memorable as a result.

The playing of the Diogenes Quartet is very competent - with very occasional intonation lapses but nothing serious. I could not warm to their sometimes choppy and hard-driven style. This was especially true of the third and fourth movements of the early quartet and in the third movements of both of the more mature quartets where greater delicacy and transparency were needed. An acceptable but comparatively uncongenial recording doesn't help; a bit tubby and reverberant with a slightly artificial edge. The Academica Quartet benefit from a slightly warmer although less reverberant acoustic and they are recorded at a slightly lower level. After the resinous adagio start to the Diogenes' performance of the early quartet I had the strong impression that the recording's editor had overused the volume control - perhaps to compensate for a lack of observance of dynamics. As a result of the sudden aggressive increase in sound I had to turn the volume down not once but twice.

Knowing just how much effort is involved in researching, learning, playing and recording neglected music I hate to be negative but I found the new CD comparatively unattractive. Neglected music is not always passed over for a good reason but it can often require special advocacy if it is to be resurrected and it doesn't quite get it here.

In summary, if you want the mature works, the Dynamic recordings and performances definitely have the edge on this Brilliant Classics offering - although note that the Mannheim Quartet on CPO received excellent reviews for their accounts and it may still be possible to find these. At any rate I enjoyed hearing the Academia Quartet's performances again. They are/were a fine quartet and they made a good case for what remains understandably neglected music. By comparison the Diogenes, although quite similar in many respects, sometimes left me feeling dissatisfied. They do not quite cut the mustard and, so far as I am concerned, their performances are for completists only.

Bob Stevenson


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