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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op.9 [28:03]
Swedish Dances, Op.63 [24:03]
Piano Quintet in G minor [25:32]
Goldner String Quartet
Piers Lane (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk on 18-20 February 2015
HYPERION CDA68120 [77:40]

Bruch is much better known for his orchestral works, such as the ever-popular violin concertos, and so it is a pleasure to hear him in a more intimate guise with this selection of chamber works from various points in his career. They are generally slighter works than the concertos and symphonies, but the Goldner String Quartet offer sympathetic readings.

The Piano Quintet is a late-ish work (completed 1888) but without opus number. The piano is often reduced to an accompanimental role but Piers Lane executes that admirably. The instrument is immersed within the rich-toned string sound of the Goldners, providing a warm backdrop with rippling accompaniment in the Scherzo’s Trio, or delicately placed chords elsewhere, never threatening to unsettle the music’s balance. Meanwhile the strings themselves play with Mendelssohnian control, only to allow greater emotion to break with a fuller, passionate vibrato at moments of heightened emotion such as in the second movement, or the Scherzo’s Trio. Altogether they make a fine case for music which otherwise would not register as greatly memorable.

Even so, this remains the highlight of the disc. Composed when the composer was all of twenty, it is unfair, perhaps, to expect too much of the String Quartet No.1. For all its confidence, there is little that is striking about the material Bruch employs, or at least his treatment of it – often there is the sense of pregnant material left unexploited. Again the spirit of Mendelssohn looms large, although in tonal structure the composition appears to bear something in common, surprisingly, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – it shares the same key overall with a transition to the triumphant major in the finale, the slow movements of both are in A flat, and a section of that movement in the Bruch sounds like an echo of one of the variations in Beethoven’s model with slow notes over a long-winding filigree line in the middle strings and pizzicato cello underneath. The Goldners maintain an essential poise and grace throughout the work, refraining even from descending into wild fury in the joyous abandon of the finale which is reminiscent of the frenetic dash of the equivalent movements of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet and String Quintet. The ensemble also observes effective contrasts in the music, for example as between the brittle, febrile mood of the Scherzo and the warmer, more lyrical Trio, which is briefly recapitulated in Beethovenian fashion just before the final flourish of that movement. Their performance overall bears close comparison with Quartetto Academica’s recording, as opposed to the rawer and less sustained account by the Diogenes Quartet.

With the Swedish Dances for violin and piano, Bruch hoped for a success corresponding to that with which the Hungarian and Slavonic Dances of Brahms and Dvorak had met, and he provided various arrangements to advance this. But Bruch’s set has not held its own against those others in any form, surely on account of his less catchy and distinctive material. The sequence tends to alternate more extrovert, robust dances with calmer, slower examples, and Dene Olding and Piers Lane capture those contrasts sensitively without exaggerating the extremes of mood and texture.

Fans of Romantic chamber music will enjoy this disc, whatever reservations one may have about the music itself, and it also sheds an interesting light on Bruch himself.

Curtis Rogers



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