Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1 in E?,
No. 2 in f,
Michael Halász, cond; Staatskapelle Weimar
NAXOS 8570994 (61:07)
Max Bruch (1838–1920) continues to be known almost exclusively by three works that have virtually eclipsed everything else he wrote: the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, the
for violin and orchestra, and the
for cello and orchestra. Yet even at that he fared a lot better than the practically anonymous August Friedrich Martin Klughardt (1847–1902) who, after four operas, five symphonies, concertos for violin and cello, and a number of chamber works, has not one, let alone three, box-office hits to his name. As for Bruch, it’s possible that his most enduringly
works may not even be his
works, for in my opinion, he was a far better composer than is generally acknowledged.
Of his three symphonies, the first two are presented here. Both scores were produced in rapid succession between 1867 and 1870, sandwiching between them the composer’s First Violin Concerto, which was first performed in its present form by Joseph Joachim in 1868. Bruch dedicated the E?-Major Symphony to Brahms and the F-Minor Symphony, not surprisingly, to Joachim, who had just premiered the revised G-Minor Concerto. There is little in either of these works, however, to suggest Brahms as a strong influence; for Bruch’s sin, if you wish to call it that, was his musical conservatism, at least insofar as content is concerned. Form is another matter, as is evidenced in the first two of his violin concertos and
, none of which conform to traditional classical models.
While the First Symphony sports a conventional four-movement layout, with the Scherzo placed second, there are some idiosyncratic Bruch oddities. The first movement, for example, even with its customary exposition repeat, wants to cast off its sonata-allegro legacy. The brief introductory statement becomes inextricably entwined with the main thematic material, the development section is not clearly differentiated from the exposition, and the recapitulation is a heavily modified version of its antecedent exposition. Also unusual, though not unprecedented for Bruch, is that all of this is compressed into nine and a half minutes, which, by later 19th-century standards, is quite short, though we see this same condensed brevity in the first movement of the First Violin Concerto.
As for content, Bruch’s models are obvious: Schumann in the first and fourth movements and Mendelssohn in the second and third. In fact, there are moments in the Scherzo and Quasi Fantasia: Grave where Bruch seems to be revisiting Mendelssohn’s
Midsummer Night’s Dream
music and the “Scottish” Symphony of a quarter-century earlier. But the sheer melodiousness of the music and the resplendent orchestration are irresistible.
Formally, the Second Symphony is even more unusual for its time. In only three movements (fast-slow-fast) instead of four, it more closely resembles a concerto than it does a symphony. Yet its three movements combined exceed the First Symphony’s four by six minutes. Content-wise, the minor key makes for a darker-hued, more somber-sounding work. But there’s more to it than that. Mendelssohn and Schumann seem to have faded into the background. The thematic material is not as immediately melodic in a hummable way. Lines are more chromatic, statements more stentorian, almost hectoring at times, and the orchestral fabric granitic. It’s hard to say if at this early date Bruch might have heard something by Bruckner or, if he had, what it might have been, for as of 1870, when Bruch’s Second Symphony was completed, Bruckner had only gotten as far as an early student symphony (1863), the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1866), and the Symphony No. 0 in D Minor (1869). But Bruch’s work does sound closer to early Bruckner than it does to Mendelssohn, Schumann, or to anyone in the Brahms orbit.
Bruch’s symphonies are not without prior representation on disc, but current choice is limited. The main competition to this new Naxos recording with Michael Halász and the Staatskapelle Weimar comes from the long-established Kurt Masur leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, originally and still available on mainline Philips, and reconstituted with a different set of works on a Philips Duo release. It was the Masur recordings through which I first became familiar with Bruch’s symphonies, and they still have a great orchestra and a celebrated conductor going for them.
Halász’s work on disc is well documented, with some 150 recordings to his name. The Weimar Staatskapelle, however, has a much smaller presence on the recording landscape, with some 10 entries currently listed. And its only other team-up with Halász, at least on CD, has been a recent Naxos release of Joseph Joachim’s violin concerto. Frankly, what the Masur/Leipzig performances do not have going for them are great recordings. I always felt the Philips sound was a bit woolly around the edges, taking the bite out of the trumpets and muddying the cellos, double basses, and timpani at the low frequencies. The Naxos recording exhibits wider frequency and dynamic ranges, and seems to have been captured from a mid-hall perspective, making for a very satisfying listening experience.
As for interpretive disparities between Masur and Halász, they strike me as relatively inconsequential. Overall, Masur tends to adopt slightly broader tempos in most movements, but evens out the timings with slightly faster tempos in a couple of instances so that in the end both conductors come within seconds of each other. I think it’s the somewhat opaque sound of the Philips recordings that makes Masur’s readings sound a bit slower than they actually are. Halász, aided by an excellent recording and by very fine playing from his Weimar forces, would now be my first choice for these works. I would also expect that Naxos, not being averse to duplicating material already in its catalog, will soon give us Bruch’s Third Symphony with Halász and the Staatskapelle Weimar to complement its two-decades old version with Manfred Honeck and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra. Strongly recommended.
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Works on This Recording
Symphony no 2 in F minor, Op. 36 by Max Bruch
Written: 1870; Berlin, Germany
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