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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy, Op.46 [30:35]
Violin Concerto No.1 in g minor, Op.26 [25:04]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell (violin/director)
rec. 8-9 September 2017, Air Studios, London. DDD.
SONY 19075842002 [55:43]

Can there really be a market for yet another recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto, with umpteen fine accounts to its name, even when it’s as well performed as here, with Joshua Bell as soloist and at the helm of the ASMF, of which he is the director? And when the playing time tots up to less than an hour …?

The answer is a modified yes – yes for the quality of the performances but qualified by the spotlighting of the soloist – a Sony trait from way back in the days of CBS, though not one which unduly bothered me here, when the solo playing is well worth the limelight – and, more importantly, by the very strong competition in both works, often more generously coupled.

There may not be as many recordings of the Scottish Fantasy – a work which I marginally prefer to the better-known Violin Concerto – but, even so, competition is fierce. With Kyung-Wha Chung, the Montreal and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and Charles Dutoit and Rudolf Kempe at the helm on Decca Legends at mid-price, a classic recording offering 78 minutes of music – the two works here plus the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto – any new release with less than an hour of music at full-price had better be good.

That Decca recording is on offer for £6.50 as I write (4609762). Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can check it there alongside the new Sony. Downloads of that album tend to be more expensive then the CD and come without booklet but the Decca Virtuoso of just the two Bruch works can be downloaded for as little as £3.97 (mp3) or £4.96 (lossless) from Presto. There’s also a ClassicFM/Decca download-only offering which adds Lynn Harrell in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei for around £7.

Even less expensive, at just over £6, is the David Oistrakh recording with which I fell in love with the Scottish Fantasy, originally with the Hindemith Violin Concerto but now coupled at budget price with the Violin Concerto and three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (Alto ALC1356)1. The Fantasy with the Hindemith coupling is preserved on a Decca Legends twofer offering 109 minutes for around the cost of a full-price CD (E4702582, with Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, etc.).

Then there’s Joshua Bell’s own earlier recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto, also with the ASMF when it was directed by Neville Marriner, now on another Decca budget twofer (4756700, with Mendelssohn and Mozart). His younger self displays prodigious technique, but the general feeling was that the then teenage Bell had some way to go in capturing the spirit of the music. The stupendous technique is now allied with a greater involvement in that spirit, Bell letting himself go in a way that he might not have dared to do then.

He also captures the spirit of the rhapsodic Scottish Fantasy without making a meal of it and while never losing sight of the need to keep the music moving: it’s all too easy in a work such as this to linger too long admiring the scenery. That’s why Beecham brought off the Balakirev First Symphony better than anyone else; it sounds too loose-limbed in other hands. I’m amazed to find that recording unavailable except as a download from a label that you have never heard of, though you may find an odd copy of the CD or LP on Amazon.  This performance of the Scottish Fantasy won the approval of my wife, who thought she didn't like the work - and certainly dislikes the Balakirev, even from Beecham

The legendary 1960s Jascha Heifetz recordings of the Concerto and Scottish Fantasy, with the New Symphony Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent, can be found on a super-budget 6-CD RCA Classical Masters set (88697761382, target price £14). That’s indispensable because it contains the only recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Reiner at the helm, which I find truly satisfying. An earlier single release of the two Bruch works and Vieuxtemps can be streamed from Naxos Music Library; you may also be able to find an odd copy of the SACD release.

The Sony booklet is a somewhat rudimentary affair for a full-price release, much of it in minuscule print in white on a light-coloured background.

I began by saying that a new recording offering less than an hour of music had better be good in the light of Kyung-Wha Chung’s Mendelssohn and Bruch at mid-price. Bell and the ASMF certainly give us first-rate accounts of the two works – I really wanted to hum along – but I’m still not sure that I wouldn’t choose the mid-price Decca if I were Building a Library, and not just for the better value.

It would have delighted the purse-proud, as it would surely have delighted Bruch in his seat on Mount Parnassus, if Bell had added one of Bruch’s other concertos – there would have been room for No.2. The composer grew to hate No.1 because it ousted his other concertos from public performance, though that’s no reason for us to shun such a beautiful work. To find out if he was right about Nos. 2 and 3, try Jack Liebeck with the BBC SSO on Hyperion (No.2, with Konzertstück, etc., CDA68055 - review; No.3 with Scottish Fantasy, CDA68050 - review). Perhaps Joshua Bell and his ASMF will oblige with accounts of those two other Bruch concertos, but I wouldn’t get too hopeful: Sony inevitably have their mind more on commercial success than Hyperion.

Two very fine performances, then, well recorded apart from the spotlighting of the soloist, which didn’t trouble me too much. But do check out the Chung and Oistrakh recordings listed above.

1 The Hindemith is now available, coupled with Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.1 and Violin Sonata, on budget-price ALC1355.

Brian Wilson

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