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Max BRUCH (1838–1920)
String Quintet in E-flat major, Op posth (1918) [18:40]
String Quintet in A minor, Op posth (1918) [24:43]
String Octet in B-flat major, Op posth (1920) [23:47]
WDR Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players
rec. May-June 2020, Philharmonie, Cologne (Quintets) and October 2020, WDR Funkhaus (Octet)
ALPHA 743 [67:39]

Toward the end of his life Max Bruch turned to chamber music and as the First World War came to an end he completed, in rapid succession, two string quintets. The earlier is in E-flat major and much the more compressed but exudes familiar qualities of Late Romanticism that makes all his music so enjoyable. There is profuse lyric mellifluousness in the opening Andante con moto that nostalgically incorporates themes from his First Symphony, whilst there is something almost Schubertian about certain turns of phrase in the succeeding Allegro. With great refinement and splendid use of running pizzicati the slow movement is rather melancholic whereas the finale revisits the Third Symphony this time, as well as the increasingly popular Double Concerto for clarinet and viola. I also sense a tribute to Mendelssohn’s Octet in this finale, a movement of avid pleasures, and whilst these revisitations may seem an exercise of personal musical nostalgia, the effect is in fact bracing.

The A minor quintet has a brief rather regretful opening before the launch of the Allegro proper, beautifully played by the WDR players. Bruch asks concertante predominance for the first violin – here, Ye Wu – and amidst the many pleasures of this work are the opportunities Bruch takes to recast some of his popular Swedish Dances in the slow movement, not least when he vests a chorale-like tenderness to them. There’s no concern for up-to-dateness here. The music unselfconsciously expresses Bruch’s joy in melody and communicative richness.

In the String Octet he preferred a bass to the more commonly expected second cello. This clearly extends the sonority of the work vertically and, whilst not quasi-symphonic in effect, is still opulent. The music, once again, is full of nineteenth-century warmth, athletic, vital, tuneful and again nearer to the ideal of the Mendelssohn Octet than anything written more recently. There’s a certain tristesse in the central slow movement but no trace of self-pity in what was one of his very last works composed only months before his death.

If this body of music represented a kind of Last Testament, a statement of the musical verities and virtues Bruch had espoused all his life, the scores’ posthumous lives were uncertain and as they were not printed at the time, they lay lost or undiscovered for many years. It was really only from the late 1980s that they began to reappear in various forms. These eloquent well-recorded performances take care not to flood the music with the kind of expressive weight it simply can’t bear, but instead take care to mediate between the nostalgia and the warmth. In truth the music tells us nothing about Bruch we didn’t know before, but it does tell us how Bruch continued to honour his musical affiliations and antecedents and to revisit some of the beauties of his own legacy in the months before his own death.

Jonathan Woolf

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