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.

Listen

Buy

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