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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
String Quintet in E Flat major, Op. posth. [17:15]
String Quintet in A Minor, Op posth. [23:24]
String Octet in B Flat major, Op. posth. [22:08]
The Nash Ensemble
rec. All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 18-20 April 2016.
HYPERION CDA68168 [62:48]

Whenever I see the designation “Op. posth.” it is usually with the expectation that it relates to an interesting item of a composer’s juvenilia that surfaced after his/her death. This is the case with the early string quartet of Bruch that I reviewed back in February. There are, however, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Bruch’s Piano Quintet, for example, dates from 1886 so it is hardly a juvenile work. The three works on the present disc came from Bruch’s last three years, in the bleak period during and immediately after the Great War, and they are designated “Op. posth.” because the composer died before they could be published.

Most of Bruch’s other chamber music dates from his youth. It seems that he was spurred to return to the discipline of chamber music as late as his eighty-first year at the suggestion of his friend, the violinist, Willy Hess (not to be confused with the Swiss composer of the same name). Three string quintets were planned – all with two violas – and Bruch completed them all, probably before March 1919. He was, however, evidently dissatisfied with the B flat major quintet and, shortly before his death in 1920, he recast the work for string octet, with the place of the second ’cello taken by a double bass.

The subsequent history of the pieces is interesting. It seems that Hess had the autograph scores in his possession and that he played them with his students. He ceded the performing rights in 1936 to Bruch’s eldest son, Max, and daughter-in-law, Gertrude. Gertrude made handwritten copies of the scores and parts and, somehow, these found their way to England and they were broadcast by the BBC in 1937/8 in performances by the violinist, Isodore Schwiller and his colleagues. In the meantime, the manuscripts were placed in the care of the Berlin publisher, Rudolph Eichmann, and two of them were probably lost during wartime bombing. All the works were not to be heard of again until Bruch’s biographer, Christopher Fifield, undertook a search for them in the 1980s. The autograph score of the octet turned up in the Austrian State Library in Vienna and the Gertrude Bruch score and parts of the A Minor quintet were found in the BBC Music Library. The remaining score and parts of the E Flat quintet were in the hands of a private collector who made this known to Fifield in 1991, although the music was not to be made accessible until this collector auctioned it off at Sotheby’s in 2006. Since then these works have enjoyed a fair number of recordings. Both the A Minor quintet and the octet were recorded by an ensemble led by Ulf Hoelscher for CPO in 1999 (review). The Henschel Quartet, with Kazuki Sawa, gave the first modern concert performance of the E flat work in July 2008 and recorded it around that time for NEOS Classics, coupled with the two Mendelssohn string quintets. The A Minor quintet was to be recorded again – this time for BIS - in 2011, by an ensemble led by Vadin Gluzman, coupled with the ubiquitous First Violin Concerto. I was not able to hear this performance but Christopher Fifield reviewed it. Also, there is a 2006 Naxos recording of the octet (coupled with the Mendelssohn octet) by the combined Kodaly and Auer Quartets. Note that a Claves recording of the Tharice Virtuosi, coupling the Svendsen and Bruch octets, also exists, but it employs a second ’cello in place of the bass and this goes against Bruch’s intentions (review).

Bruch’s early chamber music output is fairly indicative of the sometimes relatively dull works he was to produce throughout his career (with the obvious exceptions of the concertante works that were to make his name). As I originally discovered, however, when listening to broadcasts of some of the CPO performances, the very late chamber music is on a different level and belies the fact that Bruch was in his early eighties when he composed them. Whilst there is not much in the way of really memorable themes there is a lovely Brahmsian warmth to these works and none of them outstays its welcome.

We don’t know in what order the works were composed. The E Flat quintet appears first on the present disc and it is the briefest at little more than 17 minutes. Overall, this work appears to be in slow, fast, slow, fast format - the tempo marking Andante con moto unusually appearing in front of three of the four movements – the first, third and fourth. The second movement is marked Allegro and a very brief bridging passage links to it from the unresolved end of the first movement (which is really little more than an introduction). In the third movement we get a song-like Andante and, for the fourth movement, the Andante con moto designation relates only to the dramatic, slow introduction which recalls the beginning of the work. The subsequent lyrical rondo section (in ABABA form - with a coda) is marked Allegro ma non troppo vivace. Here the main theme sounds rather like the finale to the third symphony.

The Nash Ensemble give us a splendid account of the piece – beautifully balanced and with a nicely resinous string tone. They are slightly more sprightly and incisive than the Henschel group (who take 18:52 overall). That said honours between the groups are pretty even and, on purely musical grounds, I find it hard to choose between them. The Henschel group get a slightly more “in your face” recording but their sound is more open and I marginally prefer this to the Nash Ensemble’s drier acoustic.

The A Minor quintet is placed second and, here, Bruch gave his first, second and fourth movements Allegro markings - the second marked Allegro molto. The overall effect is to make this quintet sound a bit edgier than the E Flat work. The first movement has a brief, slow introduction followed by contrasting strenuous and lyrical themes. The second movement is a tarantella-like scherzo. Bruch must have been fond of the singing melody he employs in the third movement because he had previously used it in an orchestral suite of 1906 and in his 1915 Serenade on Swedish Folk Melodies. Finally, there is a dramatic rondo with several contrasting lyrical episodes.

Here the Nash performance is noticeably faster than that of the Hoelscher group (who take 26:10 overall) and they certainly sound more incisive, although both performances are very fine. Again, the dry acoustic of the new disc is a slight downside but I think the attack of the Nash performance is marginally to be preferred.

The octet - recomposed shortly before Bruch’s final decline - is an optimistic work that sounds anything but valedictory. Here there are only three movements – two Allegros framing an Adagio slow movement – but the final Allegro molto incorporates elements of a scherzo. Your choice depends on whether you prefer the idea of a relatively relaxed, autumnal performance, in a spacious acoustic – which is what you get from the Hoelscher ensemble (overall timing 24:52), the verve of the Nash ensemble in its drier acoustic, or the Kodaly/Auer group who fall between the two (24:31 overall) in a smooth, rich recording. For my taste the Nash are just a little too busy and, whilst the Naxos performance and recording provide an excellent compromise, I think I would choose the CPO performance – but I could happily live with any of them.

This is a very good field so your choice can probably best be guided by couplings. Although other reviewers have pointed out that performances of the Mendelssohn quintet couplings of the Henschel group may depend on whether you like the performers’ idiosyncratic portamenti or not, for me, this was not an issue in the Bruch work. At any rate, this new Hyperion disc provides the most appropriate coupling of these late works, and I shall return to it with much pleasure.
Bob Stevenson



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