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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op 5 (1857) [18:35]
Four Pieces for cello and piano, Op 70 (1896) [16:49]
Romance for viola and piano, Op 85 (1911) [7:49]
String Quartet No 2 in E major, Op 10 (1860) [29:17]
The Nash Ensemble
rec. September 2020, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68343 [72:32]

Bruch’s chamber music is finally becoming less sporadic on disc. Fresh from an assignment with his late String Quintets, this latest disc offers a quartet of works that span the years 1857 to 1911. The Nash Ensemble, which has also recorded the quintets and Octet (CDA68168), are perfectly placed to explore the very different charms and indeed combinations of instrumentation involved in their latest undertaking.

The Piano Trio is the earliest composition here written when he was around 20 and is a three-movement work of great charm, notable though for the unusualness of opening with an extended slow movement. The string exchanges are attractive and there’s much expressive, lyrical interaction along with a high quotient of Sturm und Drang. Stephanie Gonley, Adrian Brendel and Simon Crawford-Phillips do it full justice, with excellent passagework clarity, and playing to the full its stormily youthful sense of bravado. The Petrof Piano Trio on Nimbus are also excellent (review) but I’d hand the palm to the Nash Ensemble, also for its all-Bruch programming; the Petrof also play trios by Mendelssohn and Lalo.

The Four Pieces Op 70 for cello and piano followed decades later in 1896. Bruch actually took the opening Aria, so Tully Potter relates in the notes, from his young son’s piece for flute and piano but Bruch père certainly fashioned a long-breathed and lyrically beautiful affair out of it. To contrast, there’s a Finnish song and then an up-tempo Swedish dance, the Scherzo of the set, which is crisply rhythmic. Bruch, always a dab hand at music from around Europe, then turns in his finale to Scotland and a suitably slow and intense folk song to conclude, The lea-rig.

The Romance was dedicated to the great French viola player Maurice Vieux but first played in Berlin by Willy Hess. It’s a piece that has attracted a good number of violists, including Moog, Bashmet, Caussé and quite a few others over the years The reasons for its popularity aren’t hard to see. Apart from the fact that it’s a compact eight-minutes in length it works well in a disc recital whereas it fits rather troublingly in concert – too long for an encore, not long enough for a fully extended piece. Its musical quality is very clear, a lyric flow of Bruchian loveliness.

Finally, there is the 1860 String Quartet No 2, written when he was 22. Like many people, I first encountered this on LP back in the early 1980s where it was played, along with the earlier quartet, by the Quartetto Academica. Even so, I was quite surprised, when checking for alternative couplings of these works, to see Dynamic has transferred it to CD – but then I shouldn’t have been, as it was a good coupling, and the first ever commercial recordings of the works. But the Nash group makes more of the music, sculpting and phrasing it, and by comparison the Quartetto Academica can sound rather blunt and lacking in nuance. The Nash players also bring a quotient more nobility to the slow movement and to the ‘hobbly’ village dance enshrined in the scherzo, and in the finale’s drones. Altogether this is a vivid and characterful performance.

All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, in London is a popular Hyperion venue and once again it’s proved a fine choice, balanced and not too distant or billowing. The engineering is excellent and so is the programme, a well-rounded, thoughtful look at Bruch through the decades in a variety of chamber settings.

Jonathan Woolf

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