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Friedrich BRUK (b. 1937)
Orchestral Music – Volume 2
Symphony No. 19 Tunes from Ghettoes (2018) [38:50]
Symphony No. 20 (2018) [23:21]
Symphony No. 21 Presentiment – In memory of Anne Frank (2018) [15:42]
Arvydas Kazlauskas (baritone saxophone)
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra/Māris Kupčs
rec. 2019, Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia; Congress Hall, Vilnius, Lithuania

“This is why I regularly turn to Jewish themes in my symphonies… order to recall the existence of a people within European culture who spoke Yiddish and lived in many European countries not so long ago, because the extermination of this or any other culture of whatever ethnic group, big or small, is a tragedy for all mankind”.

With these words the Ukranian-born, Russian-trained, Finnish-domiciled symphonist Fridrich Bruk sets out the rationale for these three symphonies, the most recent of a canon which to date extends to 21 such works. They constitute the second volume in yet another important series from Toccata Classics, whose indefatigable proprietor Martin Anderson could reasonably be regarded as the James Tiberius Kirk of undiscovered repertoire. The Bruk collection kicked off with his previous two symphonies (on TOCC 0455); No 17, subtitled Joy of Life, a kind of musical autobiography for piano and orchestra and No 18, Daugapvils which grows out of a Latvian-Jewish folksong and features the haunting sound of the kokle, a local psaltery-type instrument. This work was inspired by the story of his grandparents’ deportation from Latvia during anti-semitic purges by Tsarist forces, persecution which Bruk considers to be a precursor of the Holocaust itself. The three works on the new disc dig even more deeply into Bruk’s Jewish heritage and experience and together constitute a kind of ‘meta-symphony’.

His Symphony No 19, subtitled Tunes from the Ghettoes extends to almost 40 minutes. It’s a kind of large-scale concerto for baritone saxophone, an instrument cast here in the role of anonymous witness to the eradication of European Yiddish language and culture during the Holocaust. Each of its three extended movements is loosely based around (and named after) an individual vernacular song. The first of these translates as Our Little Town is Burning. Tish Kennedy Davenport has contributed an enormously helpful and unusually detailed note (it runs to thirty pages!) for this disc. From this it is possible to understand this panel in rather literal terms – the soloist is the autobiographical voice, with the orchestra providing the documentary ‘footage’ which the saxophone describes. Its initial gestures and phrases are broad, colourful and infused with identifiably Jewish flavours. Bruk makes use of a big orchestra, and while this is hardly a singalong, there is a pungent melodic line at play throughout, and timbres which ravish and threaten by turn. Toccata’s sound is exemplary and with orchestral writing of such detail it conveys an appropriately wide dynamic range. There’s so much going on in this score it’s difficult for the listener to absorb everything at once, but in common with so much of the new music Anderson uncovers it is of consistently high quality. Little motifs in tuned percussion, melodic fragments in the saxophone line, ominous (but thankfully not cliched) brass chords and timpani rolls and chirpy woodwinds provide waypoints for the listener. Bruk’s music seems as eventful and attractive as it is stylistically diffuse. The central movement is derived from a tune known as Ele-bele, a popular song of a sardonic, defiant nature which would have been familiar to the Jewish communities inhabiting the border region between Ukraine and what is now Moldova. While the timbres and moods of this movement are dramatic and endlessly contrasting, I found it surprisingly difficult to ‘place’ this music; I’ve read commentators connecting Bruk’s sound-world with Weinberg and Shostakovich but I don’t really hear that– he has lived in Finland for a considerable time and I actually perceive Sibelian gestures here and there, especially in the writing for low strings. There’s a wide colour palette at play though and Yiddish flavours are never far away. This chapter oscillates between jauntiness and melancholy. The finale, whose folk-tune influence translates as O, Hammer, Hammer Knock is propulsive, urgent and dramatic, and as Davenport’s note informs us is dedicated both to Jewish workers in general and to a Latvian docker, Žanis Lipke in particular. During World War 2 Lipke was a local equivalent of Oskar Schindler; having witnessed countless abuses of his Jewish friends in Riga he retrained as a contractor for the Luftwaffe and used this position to smuggle countless Jews out of harm’s way. The folk tune itself concerns the work of the cobbler, who works hard for little reward, an allusion to the thousands of Latvian Jews whose lives seemed to hover between poverty and persecution. The intensification of the percussion writing in this dark, fascinating and ultimately tragic movement reflects the ‘Hammer Knock’ of the tune. The minor chords at the work’s end are bitter and doom-laden. Bruk’s language is intricate, colourful and unusual. He deploys it with great imagination to achieve expressive goals which are surprisingly nuanced. This big symphony is an impressive achievement by any standard. The Liepāja Symphony Orchestra never fail to amaze me in their commitment and execution; not for the first time they sound truly world-class in their magnificent new concert hall, the ‘Great Amber’.

We then skip due south across the Lithuanian border and head south-east to its capital Vilnius for an account of Bruk’s Symphony No 20, scored for string orchestra with clarinet, a pair of trumpets, marimba and percussion. In the context of the meta-symphony it acts as a more optimistic interlude between the searing turbulence of the two other Holocaust-inspired works. This symphony has no title but was dedicated to the composer’s wife on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary in 2018. Its music projects a more homely, intimate perspective. This isn’t especially obvious during its rather abrasive opening but with the entry of the marimba and subsequently a perky trumpet the piece begins to bounce along with a bit more of a spring in its step. The second subject projects still more intimacy. But even this doesn’t last long – the second half of the movement also seems quite tough. The unusual instrumentation and Bruk’s piquant colouristic blends once again leave one at a loss to provide readers with any obvious stylistic parallels; Honegger perhaps? This symphony is also devoid of any overtly Yiddish or even Jewish elements. Davenport draws parallels between Bruk’s central Adagietto and Mahler’s similarly titled love-letter to Alma in his fifth symphony, but there is little that is obviously tender, or even ‘Adagietto’ about this movement; although it’s predominantly light in spirit it isn’t exclusively so. It leads straight into a final section marked, rather unusually Lesto (in a brisk or lively manner). This time it does seem to be a little less angular and yields in time via a series of folksy, even jazzy episodes (led respectively by trumpets and clarinet) to gentler string music driven by tender solo cello and violin - it is at this point that the composer’s poignant, personal intent in this symphony is made most obvious; it leads to a gentle, brief conclusion. I have to say I was a little less convinced by the clarity of the playing in this work in which the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra at times seemed a tad under-rehearsed; nor is the Congress Hall in Vilnius in the same acoustic league as the Great Amber– some of the louder passages consequently seem rather echoey and unintentionally bombastic.

It’s back to Liepāja for the last and briefest of this trilogy, Bruk’s Symphony No 21 Presentiment, dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank. The title itself suggests a sense of foreboding, while each of its fifteen minutes represent on year of Anne Frank’s pitifully short life. The title Presentiment seems to allude to a specific entry in her diary (8 November 1943) in which she describes a dream which formed a premonition of her awful fate. The symphony consists of just two movements, Presentiments 1 and 2. In the first of these a calm alto-flute solo (Bruk selects this instrument to represent the spirit of Anne Frank) works its way towards a rather anxious development which at roughly 2:00 is consumed by a dissonant, complex sustained chord which conveys terror and catastrophe – all the more effectively because of its uneasy quietude. If this gesture represents the actual dream, the rest of the movement, which is utterly devoid of easy listening presumably muses on its aftermath – dreams are not real, after all, life goes on. There is a coherence to Bruk’s structures which one can readily savour, and although the musical material itself is terse and unremittingly serious it’s rich in integrity and not difficult to enjoy – again, I think the Honegger of the second, third, and fifth symphonies gives some idea of the mood herein. Presentiment 2 is briefer, agitated and unsettled in its first half but as the drums (especially bongos) begin to make themselves heard, music of unambiguous darkness and gloom emerges and builds to a brief silence at 2:40 before a calm episode involving flutes broadens to incorporate other sounds. In due course an eerie string tremolando gives way to distant drums; in time pizzicato strings presage an ending whose tension builds inexorably to the sound of stark, exposed percussion which leaves little to the listener’s imagination.

The playing and recording are again first class. The conductor Latvian Māris Kupčs displays an instinctive grasp of Bruk’s style and these readings exude tact and respect, qualities which quasi-programmatic music such as this absolutely demand. Fridrich Bruk is by now 82 years old; such is the quality of these symphonies that one earnestly hopes these fine accounts will help to raise his profile beyond his homeland(s). This is shaping up to be another life-enhancing sequence from Toccata.

Richard Hanlon

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