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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Piano Trio in C minor Op 5 (1857) [18:35]
Four Pieces Op 70 (1896) [16:48]
Romance Op 85 (1911) [7:49]
String Quartet No 2 in E major Op 10 (1860) [29:17]
The Nash Ensemble
Stephanie Gonley (violin)
Jonathan Stone (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Adrian Brendel (cello)
Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
rec. 28-30 September 2020, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London.
HYPERION CDA68343 [72:32]

The Nash Ensemble has done well by Max Bruch in the past, and this chamber music programme joins the string quintets they recorded in 2016 (review). Tully Potter’s booklet notes for this release point out that Bruch’s chamber music was largely concentrated at the early and late stages of his career, and the solidly Romantic Piano Trio Op. 5 is the work of a young but clearly brilliant composer. This piece opens with an Andante molto cantabile, somewhat controversially for the time as a slow first movement was and remains a ‘surprising departure from the norm.’ Bruch’s richly inventive melodic and harmonic momentum means this six-minute opener doesn’t leave us pleading for more oomph however, and with gathering intensity and climatic peaks of which Brahms might have been proud there is more than enough to keep us occupied. The first movement is tethered to the self-propelled three in a bar energy of the second by a note held by the cello, and this onward journey is also packed with sparkle and a generosity of expression that is quite delightful. Building in tempo from beginning to end, the finale is a fiery and excitingly dynamic Presto which demands an impressive virtuosity of the trio, both individually and collectively. Remarkably, this is a work thought to have been lost. Discovered in an archive as recently as 2013 it certainly deserves a place in the mainstream chamber music repertoire.

The Four Pieces Op. 70 for cello and piano were composed for the renowned cellist Robert Hausmann who was a member of Joseph Joachim’s spring quartet, and his co-soloist in Brahms’ Double Concerto, as well as being the dedicatee of Bruch’s famous Kol Nidrei. The booklet tells us that the first piece, Aria, “was actually filched from Bruch’s twelve-year old eldest son Max Felix, who had written it that year for flute and piano.” This elegant and movingly song-like piece is followed by a lyrical Finnish song which is treated to variations, then it’s knees-up time for a lively Swedish dance, and the set is completed with a version of the Scottish air The lea-rig.

The Romance is special for its use of the viola rather than the more expected violin. There is a certain amount of variation and turbulence subjected to the ‘big tune’ in this piece, but its thematic consistency is refined and satisfying, and while its version with orchestra offers more sumptuous sonorities, this excellent piano and viola performance fits into this programme perfectly.

The Second String Quartet is, like the Piano Trio from just a few years previously, full of freshness and vigour and brimming with confident technique. This is entertaining music with a Dvořák-like feel of pastoral festivity about it, but doesn’t have much by way of memorability of themes or profundity of expression. The conviction of this performance carries the piece far beyond banality however, and you can easily find yourself carried away with Bruch’s easy melodic flow and dance-like rhythms.

There are a few alternative recordings of these works around, with the Piano Trio also appearing on the Nimbus label played by the Petrof Piano Trio (review) in a nice performance set in a generous sounding acoustic. The Second String Quartet can be found from Diogenes Quartet on Brilliant Classics (review review) or with the Quartetto Academica on Dynamic (review). While having admirable qualities none of these is a clear favourite over the Nash Ensemble, so unless there is a particular coupling that interests you more, I would certainly suggest this fine all-Bruch programme is a very good choice.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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