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With this three CD set CPO are following their tried and tested format of bringing together earlier releases into a single cardboard slip case and packaging it at a bargain price. So the three discs that cover Max Bruch’s “Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra” were recorded and released between June 2013 and February 2015 (Volume 2 ~ Volume 3). The jewel-case packaging and the liners and the recordings are identical so this is a straight question of cost and convenience. In terms of completeness there is little if any competition in the catalogue. Back around 1980 that prince of violinists Salvatore Accardo recorded exactly the same repertoire for Philips with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. This set did appear in various incarnations more than thirty years ago and as far as I am aware there has been nothing else comparable since. Accardo is predictably excellent with an intense almost febrile approach and the gleaming technique for which he was famed. But in direct comparison with the CPO set Masur’s accompaniments are perfectly good if rather faceless alongside Accardo’s brilliance. If pushed, I prefer the complete musical package in better sound with more dynamic and engaged playing from all departments. I see in the catalogue there is a more recent Naxos set played by Maxim Fedotov and the Russian PO. I have not heard that but it should be noted that a couple of the shorter works are missing.
As a young violin student I rather overdosed on the famous Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26. As a consequence and while considering requesting this set to review I did wonder whether I really wanted to hear this work again. Well that was a mistake – it is so easy to take ‘obvious’ or ‘popular’ pieces of music for granted. From the opening bars of the really excellent performance here by Antje Weithaas, conductor Hermann Bäumer and the alert NDR Radiophilharmonie, I was reminded all over again that this piece is one of the unquestionably great violin concerti. The CPO disc that contains this work was actually Vol.2 of this series – the label cunningly drawing buyers in with rarer repertoire on Vol.1. I must admit to not having heard Weithaas before. A quick glance at the biography included with this set and her discography shows an artist of wide and enduring experience across repertoire and continents. And that is how her playing sounds too – wise, technically very accomplished and at the service of the music. Of course the Violin Concerto No.1 is Bruch’s most famous work regardless of genre, with the Scottish Fantasy and the Cello Kol Nidrei really the only other pieces to register on the collective listening consciousness. Certainly Bruch’s melodic inspiration was running high when he wrote the work with every movement full of beautiful tunes sensitively orchestrated. What I especially like about Weithaas’ playing is just how sensitive she is to the musical architecture of the piece. Given the temptation to allow every melody to gush forth, Weithaas beautifully paces the work as well as being willing to play at truly inward quiet dynamics. The CPO engineering places Weithaas slightly forward in the mix but not unnaturally so. There are other aspects of Weithaas’ style that I enjoyed very much – she plays with a slightly ‘old-school’ approach of audible shifts and same finger position changes. Technically she is absolutely razor sharp and accurate but this style of shifting adds an authentic Romantic spirit to the performances.
So much has been written about this concerto and so many fine performances exist that suffice to say this version under consideration is very very good indeed. However, it is likely that purchasers of this set are more interested in the less familiar repertoire. Interestingly, of the nine works offered here, the famous concerto is in fact one of the shortest of the multi-movement pieces. This disc’s main companion work, the Serenade Op.75 is more than half as long again – running to some thirty eight minutes - and was written thirty three years later. So if the first concerto from the mid 1860’s could be called the first genre-defining Romantic violin concerto by 1899 the four movement Serenade is a resolutely conservative backward looking piece. But once you accept that caveat, it is a genuinely delightful piece. As the title implies, it is a group of four pieces of clearly differentiated character. The liner – dating back to CPO’s earlier preference for densely opaque and poorly translated prose - makes the valid point that this work plays to Bruch’s strengths as melodist and scene painter. The work was written in the hope that Pablo de Sarasate, who had been a great advocate of the first concerto and Scottish Fantasy, would want to promote the work – he did not. The liner speculates that the popularity of the earlier work already overshadowed anything else Bruch produced and also that the publisher chose a particularly expensive fee for performing the work. Whatever the reason, from a hundred and twenty years later the neglect seems unjust in purely musical terms. Again the players on this disc impress with the combination of technical polish and expressive sensitivity. The third movement Notturno is the undoubted highlight with Weithaas’ playing compellingly rapt. The second and fourth movements have elements of the folk music that Bruch often referenced throughout his work. Clearly the technical demands are considerable – presumably gauged to appeal to the virtuoso Sarasate – but of course this then requires a soloist to devote considerable time and effort to learn a work of potentially limited wider appeal. Fortunate then that a player of Weithaas’ stature has been willing to rehabilitate this and indeed all the works in this set. Simply put, if you enjoy the famous concerto, you will enjoy this Serenade.
The disc is completed by the In Memoriam Op.65. This is another substantial single movement running to nearly fifteen minutes. The liner suggests that the choice of title is more a case of mood-painting rather than marking a specific death. The very opening timpani figure and somber bass line instantly evokes a grieving processional with the orchestral strings playing for nearly a minute and a half before the solo violin doubles a simple melodic line. All of Weithaas’ strengths of beautifully sustained expressive lines are given opportunities to shine. Again, the appealing warmth and richness of the CPO recording supports the soaring violin line with a richly Romantic bed beneath it. The inescapable conclusion is that this is another piece that would be instantly popular if given more opportunities to be heard. Direct comparison with Accardo again shows that Weithaas has little if nothing to fear from her eminent colleague. I do like the warm Leipzig horn sound but both the accompaniment and the recording is more sophisticated and convincing on the newer CPO disc.
Vol.1 of this series follows a similar formula of familiar big work, lesser-known work and shorter filler. The disc opens with the lesser known Violin Concerto No.2 in D minor Op.44 written a decade after the first. Bluntly put it does not grab the listener’s attention in the way the earlier work did. Bruch decided to open the concerto with a slow movement which he wrote and completed only to decide that it would probably be better as a stand-alone piece which it became as the Romanze Op.42 included on disc 3. He persisted with the slow movement opening now marked Adagio ma non troppo which in turn is followed by a central quite brief Recitativ – allegro moderato which leads to the concluding Finale – allegro molto. The issue with this form is one of balance. In this performance – which again I cannot fault in terms of technique or musical insight – the first movement occupies nearly half of the work’s twenty seven minute playing time. Although the solo part – another Sarasate vehicle – is clearly demanding, it does not instantly impress in the way audiences across the centuries will respond to. The impression is almost of a twenty minute introduction to a nine minute showpiece. The liner points towards another musical scene for the first movement – this time a gloomy battlefield in the aftermath of conflict with dead and dying and the sound of lamenting. Certainly, even without this narrative hook, the sense of a tragic landscape is pretty clear. The NDR Radiophilharmonie heavy brass create a suitably dark and stormy atmosphere and Weithaas plays with doom-laden intensity. Hard not to come to the conclusion that Bruch was struggling reconciling form and content and not wholly succeeding.
This is especially apparent within bars of the opening of the Scottish Fantasy Op.46. Written just a couple of years after the problematic Concerto No.2 this was yet another Sarasate dedication. It is not simply a question of listener familiarity – the work oozes confidence and certainty in a way the concerto does not. The use of Scottish folksongs taps into Bruch’s natural preference for this type of lyrical line and the Fantasy form frees him of the structural demands of a concerto. The result is a sense of creative liberation that produced one of Bruch’s very finest works. Of course this has been recognised by players and audiences alike over the last 140 years and the catalogue contains many superb performances. But this current version is better than most and the equal of any. The CPO engineering is ideal at picking out the Romantic richness of Bruch’s orchestral writing – how effectively the composer adds a bardic harp to the score for example. Sarasate must have been much happier with the solo writing too – this remains Bruch’s most successful fusion of display, form and melodic invention. The liner relates the premiere in Liverpool where Bruch had taken on the principal conductor role with the great Joseph Joachim as soloist. However, it appears that according to a letter from Bruch to his publisher; “[Joachim played] carelessly, without respect, very nervously and with entirely insufficient technique..” Bruch goes on to detail Joachim’s maligning of Sarasate for good measure. Luckily the stature of the work survived such a perilous birth and hard not to imagine Bruch being far happier with the performance here. Weithaas plays the many lyrical passages with great sensitivity and beauty of tone while in the very demanding Finale Allegro guerriero she has an imperious technique. All in all another wholly successful and impressive performance.
One of the things I take from this set, listening to it in quite a concentrated manner, is just how fine the stand-alone shorter works are. From a modern perspective it is tricky to programme a ten minute concertante work into a larger programme but on disc they make perfect fillers. Likewise I could imagine the commercial radio stations being a perfect vehicle for these relatively brief but self-contained works. The Adagio appassionato Op.57 that completes this disc is a case in point. Clearly Bruch did have a natural aptitude for these ‘tone-pictures’. The liner briefly mentions that the work was initially conceived as another concerto vehicle for Sarasate with Bruch – as was his wont – starting with the central Adagio movement. But in this instance that was all he wrote so it became a work in its own right. Bruch’s fixation on the primacy of the melodic line is again clear. Weithaas captures perfectly the rapt musing spirit over a hushed almost hymn-like accompaniment and as elsewhere in the set her dynamic and tonal range is a genuine joy to hear. Again the CPO engineers achieve a near-ideal balance between soloist and orchestra – a very impressive achievement from all concerned.
Disc three opens with Bruch third, final and most ambitious Violin Concerto. Running to just over forty minutes this dwarfs the preceding two efforts. The opening Allegro energico alone is longer than the two movement Konzertstück which shares the disc. For this final concerto Bruch embraced the traditional fast/slow/fast format and Joachim this time gave a triumphant premiere. As an aside – the CPO liners for this set detail the many and various letters sent to artists publishers and just about anyone who would be targeted with outrage for some aspect of their engagement with him and his music – seemingly a man for whom “a fit of pique” was his default mood! The orchestra has an extended two minute introduction of the movement’s main material before the violin enters with some virtuosically rhetorical pages. By now the exemplary playing of Antje Weithaas is to be expected but it is the beauty and poise of her quiet playing that continues to impress. Bruch’s orchestration is never mould-breaking or particularly innovative but conversely it is almost always effective and so it proves again here. The extended orchestral tutti in this first movement is grandly Romantic and the NDR Radiophilharmonie play with exactly the right combination of power and precision. Bruch’s handling of the soloist/orchestral interchanges is much more traditional than in his other concerti and to be honest the music probably benefits from this approach – as a composer perhaps for all his melodic gifts he simply lacked the skill to redefine a concerto in the way he had previously sought.
The central Adagio again allows for an extended orchestral introduction before the solo violin’s song-like entry. This movement is attractively simple with the solo part allowed to focus on long lyrical lines with relatively little virtuosic embellishment. Because the opening movement is very technically demanding, the contrast works well for both listener and soloist and certainly this is another opportunity to relish Weithaas’ supreme control and skill. The closing Allegro molto allows the soloist immediate opportunities for display – there is a folk-dance lilt here with echoes of the Scottish Fantasy that is very engaging [another Bruch letter moans that in a later performance Sarasate played this too fast as if it were the finale of the Mendelssohn Concerto!]. I must admit that I had forgotten what an attractive work this concerto was – its only fault being that its not the Concerto No.1 which audiences and promoters seem to prefer. Hence, the effort for soloists to learn this very demanding work will garner limited returns. Aside from Accardo, I do not know any other performances, but I find it hard to imagine a more compelling advocate than the performers here – a genuine highlight of this set.
Bruch in petulant mood again criticised the great Maud Powell who after a triumphant American premiere of the Konzertstück Op.84 told the composer she would not be including the work in her Autumn schedule because the two movement fast/slow format (and abbreviated eighteen minute length I imagine) was not conducive to concertising. From a purely commercial perspective you can understand Powell’s dilemma but the joy of discs such as this is that it allows the music to be appreciated away from any such concerns. One noticeable fact is that this is the latest/last of Bruch’s works for violin and orchestra. 1903 saw the creation of works as diverse as Ravel’s String Quartet, Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, Schoenberg’s Pelleas un Melisande and Mahler Symphony No.6 to name a few pieces at random. Bruch was comfortably buried in the mid 19th Century but again this is a wholly enjoyable work when one ignores its essential conservatism. Indeed the closing Adagio is one of Bruch’s most rapturous creations. The closing pages are a rather moving farewell to the solo violin genre and Weithaas is the ideal artist to capture this poignant envoi.
The disc’s closing work is the Romanze Op.42 that started life as the opening movement of the second concerto. Given the way it works perfectly well as a self-contained work and the fact that it really does not have any concerto-like characteristics it would seem like a sensible choice by Bruch to start again with the concerto. What this work does underline is Bruch’s talent for writing extended melodic lines throughout his entire career. His close collaboration – grudging or otherwise – with the great virtuosi of his day – did allow him to understand how to fuse the virtuosic and the lyrical so this music satisfies the listener on both a display and emotional level.
Exactly the same can be said of all the performances across these three well-filled discs. In Artje Weithaas Bruch finds a champion whose own musical and technical strengths seem to be perfectly aligned to this music. Likewise the accompaniments and engineering of this set is of the very highest order. Even when alternatives versions are already known and enjoyed, this is a set that gives the listener new and impressive insights into a body of work that is consistently enjoyable and attractive. Very warmly recommended.