In celebration of Bruch

Believe it or not, Beethoven is not the only classical composer to have an anniversary in 2020!

While Arcana are spending a great deal of time examining and enjoying his output, we should definitely spare some moments to appreciate the gifts of Max Bruch, a gifted melodist who died 100 years ago today.

Born in 1838, Bruch is known chiefly for his works for violin and orchestra, in particular the Violin Concerto no.1 completed just before he turned 30. As is so often the case, however, if you look beneath the surface there are many more riches to be found.

Even at the age of 11 he was showing considerable talent in his Septet in E flat major, a work only discovered in 1981. The first violin concerto was followed by a first Symphony of three – attractive works which have just recently been released by Robert Trevino and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on the CPO label, reviewed on this site. Full of attractive tunes and outdoorsy textures, they are very enjoyable works.

This is before we get to the works for solo instruments and orchestra, where Bruch is at his most consistently inventive. The imaginative combination of clarinet and viola work well in the Concerto in E minor (1911), while the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra from a year later has added steel from the two keyboard instruments. The shorter pieces for strings and orchestra are more directly moving, headed by the soulful Kol Nidrei for cello and the Romance for violin.

On a larger scale, Bruch’s Scottish Rhapsody, based on themes from James Johnson’s collection of folk songs The Scots Musical Museum, is a wonderful piece, full of positive energy, which leads us to the three violin concertos themselves. The Violin Concerto no.1 is rightly celebrated for its blend of romanticism and technical virtuosity, but the second and third are cut from a very similar cloth, reaching similar heights of expression and daring. A late Serenade for violin and orchestra, published in 1899, is also a fine piece.

Bruch is a figure who often dips beneath the radar in concert programming, and who suffers from over-exposure of his ‘flagship’ piece, but it is worth taking some time around his centenary to appreciate the body of his output. Happily there are some fine records to aid us in that quest!

Bruch’s symphonies can be heard in the most recent recording by Robert Trevino, while the violin concertos have all been recorded by Jack Liebeck and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins for Hyperion. You can visit their Bruch page to examine these and other attractive chamber pieces from the Nash Ensemble:

This Spotify playlist below celebrates some more highlights from the composer’s output:
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/39bOXUAmlwwHUfot2jZ0sM?si=UsGg2uiYTmu3xeEBD7h3kw

On record: Bruch: Symphonies & Overtures – Bamberger Symphoniker / Robert Trevino (CPO)

Max Bruch
Symphony no.1 in E flat major Op.28 (1868)
Symphony no.2 in F minor Op.36 (1870)
Symphony no.3 in E major Op.51 (1882)
Lorely Op.16 – Overture (1863)
Hermione Op.40 – Prelude (ed. Jacob); Funeral March; Entr’acte (1871)
Odysseus, Op. 41 – Prelude (1872)

Bamberger Symphoniker / Robert Trevino

Producers Torsten Schreier, Michaela Wiesbeck
Engineers Christian Jaeger, Markus Spatz
Recorded 2-5 January & 8-12 July 2019, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg

CPO 555252-2 [two discs, 149’04”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

CPO continues its coverage of Max Bruch with his complete symphonies, finely rendered by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Trevino with the same insight and perception he brought to his recent Malmö traversal of Beethoven symphonies (Ondine).

What’s the music like?

Seldom encountered in the concert hall, Bruch’s symphonies have been recorded frequently these past three decades – with cycles from such conductors as Kurt Masur (Philips/Decca), James Conlon (EMI/Warner) or Richard Hickox (Chandos) and at least three others. Trevino is at least the equal of any, not least because the playing from his Bamberg forces has all the warmth and eloquence this taciturn music requires; with the acoustic of the Joseph Keilberth Room affording clarity and definition in Bruch’s often densely layered orchestral textures.

This recording of the First Symphony is the first to restore the Intermezzo that Bruch placed second in what was originally a five-movement structure. Here its wistful charm offers subtle contrast between the slow-burning momentum of the opening Allegro and Mendelssohnian impetus of the Scherzo. The sombre grandeur of the Quasi Fantasia functions as extended introduction to the Finale – its vaunting energy featuring what must be the nearest in any of these works to a ‘catchy tune’, on the way to a coda whose affirmation is equally uninhibited.

It may be much less approachable, but the Second Symphony is undoubtedly the finest of this cycle. Formally innovative, too, in that its three movements – each of them moderately paced and gradually cumulative – builds from salient motifs all derived from a ‘motto’ idea stated at the outset and which duly returns to crown the finale. Coolly received at its premiere and then accorded only grudging respect, this remains a highpoint of Bruch’s output as also of German mid-Romanticism, and Trevino does full justice to its deep-seated logic and cumulative power.

Bruch evidently conceived his symphonies as a triptych, but he laboured over completing his Third Symphony – by which time, the first two of Brahms’s cycle had shifted the symphonic goalposts irrevocably. That said, the restrained initial movement has a delightful insouciance, while the Adagio evinces a ruminative poise worthy of Dvořák. The bustling Scherzo (better placed second) feels a little too generic, however, while the short-winded Finale hardly rises above the routine. Bruch thereafter essayed concertos and suites, but no further symphonies.

Does it all work?

Yes, allowing Bruch was very much a product of that century between the Napoleonic and First World wars when cultural, as opposed to societal change was incremental rather than radical. Excerpts from his operas Loreley and Hermione (the latter’s Prelude disfigured by Wolfgang Jacob’s crude ‘concert ending’) and his oratorio Odysseus fill-out the picture of a composer who, if his innate conservatism may have been wielded increasingly out of spite rather than conviction, wrote appealing music which did not lack for integrity of purpose.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Those who have heard Ray Chen’s engaging account of the First Violin Concerto (Decca) will be aware of Trevino’s identity with this music and so it proves here, in what is a welcome addition to Bruch’s discography as the centenary of his death fast approaches.

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For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Presto website

On record – Ensemble SYD / Daniel Hansson – Pettersson: Vox Humana (CPO)

*Kristina Hellgren (soprano), *Anna Grevelius (mezzo-soprano), *Conny Thimander (tenor), */**Jakob Högström (baritone), *Musica Vitae, */**Ensemble SYD / Daniel Hansson

Pettersson
Vox Humana (1974)*
Six Songs (1935)**

CPO CPO 999 286-2 [69’26”]

Swedish texts and English/German translations
Producer Stephan Reh
Engineers Hakan Ekman & Gunnar Andersson

Recorded 26-27 May 2019 at Palladium, Malmo

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The CPO label moves a step closer to recording the complete works by Allan Pettersson with this disc of his major non-symphonic choral work Vox Humana, coupled with the first outing for an orchestration of the Six Songs which is almost this composer’s earliest surviving opus..

What’s the music like?

After prolonged illness (and hospitalisation) at the start of the 1970s, Pettersson’s priorities as a composer changed somewhat; his relatively succinct Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies being followed by the choral Twelfth, setting Pablo Neruda, then the present cantata such as makes explicit his empathy with the socially and politically oppressed through settings of poems by mainly Latin-American authors. Despite its 50-minute duration, Vox Humana is for the most part subdued and understated in its tone – with, moreover, a focus on the salient ‘message’ of those tests which recalls his approach in the wartime Barefoot Songs that constitutes his first notable statement. This is reinforced by accompaniment for strings whose reticence seems a world away from the charged and confrontational manner pursued in most of his symphonies.

Formally the cantata divides into three separate parts. The first of these consists of 14 songs after Latin-American workers’ poetry, mostly reflections on the hopelessness of those being depicted and of the injustices meted out to them on a continual basis. The second part takes in three even briefer songs after old Indian poetry, here rendered in music which reduces the sentiments expressed to barest essentials. The third and final part consist of a single, ballad-like setting of a poem by Neruda, whose death in 1973 pre-dated by mere months the brutal military takeover in Chile and so makes the ecstatic longing of his words the more poignant. It forms a fitting culmination to this work, though even here Pettersson is mindful never to overstate the emotional fervour of convictions with which he was undoubtedly in sympathy.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that the restraint and often folk-like simplicity of these settings is its own justification. It helps when the performers are evidently attuned to this music, Jakob Högström leading the way with his authoritatively eloquent baritone and Anna Grevelius underlining her claims as among the leading mezzos of her generation.

Soprano and tenor may have considerably less to do, but Kristina Hellgren and Conny Thimander both make the most of their contributions. Daniel Hansson secures a thoughtful response from Musica Vitae and Ensemble SYD alike.

The other recording of Vox Humana dates back 43 years and was one of the first recordings issued by BIS. Stig Westerberg was among Pettersson’s surest advocates in the composer’s lifetime and his account lacks nothing in commitment, nor the sound for clarity or realism, yet the greater perspective of this version does tip the balance in its favour. The coupling, Pettersson’s Six Songs as arranged with strings and harp by Steffan Storm, is itself more apposite in confirming the human dimension of this composer’s music from the beginning.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The booklet has full Swedish texts alongside English and German translations, with detailed notes by Andreas Meyer (though some of his discussion seems to be missing from the English text). Those unfamiliar with Vox Humana need not hesitate to acquire this disc.

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For more information on this release visit the Presto website

On record – Quatuor Danel: Tchaikovsky – Complete String Quartets & Souvenir de Florence (CPO)

Quatuor Danel [Marc Danel & Gilles Millet (violins), Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Yovan Markovitch (cello)], Vladimír Bukač (viola)*, Petr Prause (cello)*

Tchaikovsky
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.22 (1873-4)
String Quartet movement in B flat major (1865)
String Quartet no.3 in E flat minor Op.30 (1876)
String Sextet in D minor Op.70, ‘Souvenir de Florence’ (1890)*

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is a very welcome release from the Quatuor Danel. Having already given us complete cycles of Weinberg and Shostakovich – a total of 32 string quartets – they extend their reach back to Tchaikovsky and the first major quartet cycle in Russian music. There are two discs which include the three published quartets, the quartet movement and Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet.

What’s the music like?

Following these pieces is a very interesting way of charting Tchaikovksy’s development as a composer.

The String Quartet no.1 in D major gives evidence of his major early influences, with Mozart and Mendelssohn in evidence. It also contains as its second movement the Andante cantabile, removed and arranged for string orchestra and very popular as a standalone piece for reflection.

The String Quartet no.2 in F major is weightier, with a more overtly Romantic musical language as Tchaikovsky shows more obvious emotion in his writing. The String Quartet no.3 is unusually cast in E flat minor, not a key string players regard with great affection, but one which offers very effective, dark colouring in an elegiac work.

The cycle is nicely positioned at regular intervals in the composer’s career, predated by a Quartet Movement in B flat major from the mid-1860s and capped by the String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence, from 1890, written while the composer was working in the Italian city.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are excellent performances from a quartet clearly attuned to Russian chamber music. They enjoy the graceful music with which the String Quartet no.1 starts, gliding forward with poise and elegance. As the development of the ideas gathers pace and intensity, so the quartet become more animated, convincingly driving through to the final bars. The Andante Cantabile is fresh and free of indulgence, its central dance offsetting the thoughtful main material. The Scherzo has plenty of cut and thrust, plus an enjoyable, bubbly trio, while the finale is in a similar vein but sunnier, enjoying the major key and some glorious melodies from Marc Danel’s violin.

Once fully in to gear, the String Quartet no.2 has an exuberant first movement. It is a high voltage performance, occasionally brimming over with its high spirits, but with a nicely judged and serene close. The quartet enjoy the rustic sounds of this work, particularly evident when Tchaikovsky uses open fifths in the lower parts, and they get admirable clarity from the big textures in the middle of the Andante.

The String Quartet no.3 receives a telling performance, getting right to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s thoughts. Sombre and thoughtful in its introduction, the first movement soon has admirable depth, the transition to the faster music ideally judged. The quartet relish Tchaikovsky’s fulsome writing but also the deeply soulful character of the movement’s second theme. The Scherzo is light on its feet, enjoying the exchanges from the top of the first violin to the bottom of the cello and back again, while the muted start to the third movement is particularly intense, deeply telling in its sorrowful and respectful closing pages. The finale largely shakes off these shackles but for a brief reference to the mood of the third.

As a useful postscript the Quartet Movement has a quiet and mysterious beginning, and it is not initially obvious where the work is going but then it blooms into a full structured movement, using the influence of Schubert and Mendelssohn to strong effect.

Finally a spirited account of the Souvenir de Florence, busy and upfront from the start, with plenty of energy from the six players – but with time too to enjoy both the softer second theme of the first movement and the lovely slow movement, where the cello line blooms beautifully. The shimmering central section here has plenty of drama, then the sound becomes earthy as the cello line returns. Textures are occasionally stretched in the third movement but the finale has a dramatic sense of urgency as well as a lovingly dispatched, broadly phrased second theme bringing brief parallels to the composer’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. After this the sextet secure a thoroughly emphatic and affirming finish.

The big challenge with these works is getting the melodies to sing through the full textures with which Tchaikovsky writes, but the Quatuor Danel achieve the right balance throughout these excellent versions.

The elegance of the first quartet is immediately appealing, as is the red blooded cut and thrust of the second and the deeply emotive third, the best performance here. Having the Quartet Movement and an excellent account of Souvenir de Florence is the icing on the cake.

Is it recommended?

Yes. There is formidable competition in these pieces from the Borodin String Quartet, in company with Genrikh Talalyan and Mstislav Rostropovich for the Souvenir de Florence, and also from the Gabrieli and Chilingirian Quartets.

Yet despite these the Quatuor Danel offer an excellent modern alternative, with excellent performances and recording all round. It’s time for Tchaikovsky’s string quartets to come in from the cold.

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You can listen to clips from the Quatuor Danel’s Tchaikovsky cycle and purchase a copy at the Presto website here