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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Symphony No.1 Op.28 (1868) [38:04]
Symphony No.2 Op.36 (1870) [39:22]
Symphony No 3 in E Major Op 51 (1882, rev. 1886) [38:30]
Hermione, Op.40 (1870); Prelude [8:54]: Funeral March [6:15]: Entr’acte [2:35]
Die Loreley, Op.16; Overture (1863) [4:53]
Odysseus, Op.41; Prelude (1872) [9:54]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Robert Trevino
rec. 2019, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal
CPO 555 252-2 [77:30 + 71:34]

Back in the old days chances to hear any of Bruch’s symphonies were limited, so when I got my hands on Wolfgang Balzer’s LP of Symphony No.1 and the trusty Louisville/Jorge Mester recording of No.2 I considered myself fortunate. Then along came cycles by Conlon, Masur and Wildner, before Naxos democratized things still further with their own recordings (Halász with the first two and Honeck with No.3). Other entrants, such as Hickox’s Symphony No.1 mean that there is a welcome plurality of approaches.

That’s some of the background for this latest cycle – which includes some orchestral works – recorded by American conductor Robert Trevino and the Bamberg Symphony and is released in the centenary year of Bruch’s death. The orchestra has been Jakub Hrůša’s since September 2016 and is in fine form throughout, with cultivated winds and elegant string choirs. The brass has a rounded quality, mellow and not punchy, that blends well.

The first thing to note is that Trevino has restored the Intermezzo in the First Symphony making this now a five-movement work. It’s the first time, so far as I’m aware, that this has happened in a recording. This was the form in which the work was originally heard in Sondershausen in July 1868 but the Intermezzo was excised when Bruch conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig in October. It’s a rather lovely addition. Elsewhere the Mendelssohn-Schumann axis predominates, notably in the elvish Scherzo. The Quasi Fantasia is taken raptly but very slowly and whilst the chamber refinement of the orchestral exchanges is notable for its intimacy, I wonder if Trevino doesn’t love this movement rather too much. In compensation he brings a confident, accented brio to the finale.

The powerful Beethovenian vein that runs throughout the opening Allegro passionato movement of the Second Symphony draws from Trevino a rather deliberate interpretation of Bruch’s qualifying instruction ma un poco maestoso. Some Brahmsian cadences illuminate the brooding Late-Romanticism of the music though once again, as in the slow movement of the First Symphony, Trevino’s conception is expansive. That said he does not, as do some conductors, hustle through Bruch’s opening and closing movements as if afraid of exposing their limitations. In the slow movement here, rather like Conlon, he takes the music with a kind of reverential and expressively lyric intensity; he is very good at drawing out string counter-themes even at this relaxed tempo. The finale is taken at a good speed, mediating brusqueness and over-deferential reserve nicely. It’s the most conventional of the movements and not Bruch at his finest.

Much the same applies to the Third Symphony, reinforcing the point that Trevino has a consistent view of Bruch’s symphonic canon; beautifully detailed but expansive. Though he’s slower than most in the first movement he’s not as slow as Honeck but he reveals his colours most clearly in another lovingly prolonged slow movement which, to me, at least, has the effect of overbalancing the music in favour of the opening two movements which sound somewhat undifferentiated tempo-wise. There’s little argument with the genial Mendelssohnian Scherzo or the finale, which starts amiably and then builds up steam.

There is a quintet of other orchestral music that should be attractive to collectors, drawn from his opera Hermione – the Prelude employs the concert ending made by Wolfgang Jacob – and the sonorous Prelude from the oratorio Odysseus. The overture from Die Loreley will remind Bruchians of the complete recording of the work released by CPO (see review).

Eckhardt van den Hoogen maintains his reputation as one of the world’s most infuriating booklet writers: erudite and complex, but ill-focused and with a propensity to quote Matthew 7:3-5.

This twofer gives much to think about. The finely recorded performances draw on every fibre of Bruch’s expressive lyricism at the risk of stretching it, sometimes, to breaking point. Neither Trevino nor anyone else can really get to grips with the Bruch symphonic finale problem (weak ideas) but then Bruch is hardly alone in that respect. What I admire most here is the excellent orchestral playing and the confidence Trevino shows in maintaining consistency of purpose and execution.

Jonathan Woolf

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