September 24, 2020


Bruch: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; “Hermione”—Prelude, Funeral March and Entr’acte; “Die Loreley”—Overture; “Odysseus”—Prelude. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Robert Trevino. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     The music of Max Bruch, arch-conservative of the 19th-century musical world (indeed, pretty much self-proclaimed as such), his extremely difficult personality at odds with his own creativity as well as with the world at large, had fallen almost completely out of favor even during his own lifetime (1838-1920). Like his near-contemporary Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Bruch clung to compositional models of the early-to-middle 19th century long after newer trends had taken over – but unlike Saint-Saëns, who continued to produce works of considerable interest as he aged (the “Organ” symphony and Carnival of the Animals when he was 51, the “Egyptian” piano concerto when he was 61), Bruch stuck pretty closely to the models of his youth as time progressed, making his work all too easy to dismiss. And that is a shame, because however prickly his personality and however deep his unwillingness to conform to what he saw as unjustifiable fads of the later 19th century, Bruch was a master melodist and a careful, knowing, often elegant orchestrator.

     These characteristics are in the forefront in Bruch’s three symphonies, which receive splendidly played and very well-paced performances on a new two-CD release from CPO that features the always excellent Bamberger Symphoniker under Robert Trevino, whose sensitivity to this music is quite exceptional for an American-born conductor. Trevino favors grandeur and comparatively slow tempos in all the Bruch works heard here, and his approach proves quite successful.

     One highlight of the set is the first-ever recording of Bruch’s Symphony No. 1 in its original, five-movement version. Bruch, like Mahler in his Symphony No. 1 (written 20 years after Bruch’s), originally planned a five-movement work, but dropped the second movement after early performances (just as Mahler discarded “Blumine”). Bruch’s five-movement First Symphony starts with a gently swelling introduction and very warmly conceived main section. The use of horns is particularly notable. The first movement builds effectively and with considerable drama combined with nicely contrasted lyricism. The second movement, the soon-to-be-dropped Intermezzo, opens with a brass chorale contrasted nicely with flowing string passages. The predominant impression is of a gentle rocking motion, and the effect is sweet even in the fanfares toward the end. The third movement, a scurrying Scherzo, is a dramatic contrast and is played particularly well here. It is playful and bright, nicely scored, with effective brass writing and some vibrant touches for flute that are distinctly Mendelssohnian. The fourth movement, Quasi Fantasia, is expansive and string-focused. Although marked Grave, it is not deeply serious: it is expressive and emotional, but more gestural than deeply heartfelt. The use of lower strings is particularly well done. Conducted very expansively by Trevino, this movement lends the symphony more gravitas than it would otherwise possess. The finale starts with quiet timpani, then an anticipatory passage that soon leads to a bright, positive section, followed by a second theme with a pleasantly flowing, almost pastoral character. The movement is marked Allegro guerriero, a designation Bruch also used in the Scottish Fantasy, but it is hard to see anything warlike in the rather sweet and gentle character of this movement. The five-movement version of this symphony is actually better balanced than the four-movement one, and inclusion of the Intermezzo brings the work to the same length (a bit under 40 minutes) as Bruch’s two other symphonies.

     Actually, in Trevino’s performances, Symphony No. 2 is the longest, although not by much. This is notable, though, because this is only a three-movement symphony – and is the only one Bruch wrote in a minor key (F minor). It has a highly dramatic start, the first movement sounding like the curtain-raiser for a tragic opera. The movement proceeds with a high level of emotion throughout, but it has a certain sense of “churn,” as if it never quite gets to a definitive point. The second movement continues the dark mood of the first. Bruch’s lyricism is in full flow here, with expansive string themes and dark-hued brass emphases. The movement unfolds broadly and expressively. The finale has the unusual tempo marking of Allegro molto tranquillo: Bruch clearly was not looking for anything triumphal or anything to contradict the mood of the other movements. The finale is played attacca after the second movement, sneaking in so gently that it is hard to know just when it starts. Despite its slightly greater speed, it has the same degree of warmth and placidity as the second movement. The mood gradually lightens as the finale progresses, with upper-woodwind touches helping balance the greater seriousness of strings and brass. The movement eventually wins through to a degree of optimism and positivity, something a bit beyond resignation – more a combination of satisfaction and acceptance.

     Symphony No. 3, in the traditional four movements, swells from the start and has rising themes in brass and winds. There is an almost operatic feeling of anticipation that leads to a cadenza-like flute passage, after which the ascending strings become ever more anticipatory. The main section of the first movement strides forward sturdily, but soon becomes slower and quieter, more thoughtful. The second movement opens as a nearly static scene of considerable beauty. The strings carry most of the mood, with brass emphasizing individual passages. Woodwind touches are expertly handled and enhance the mood. The movement, however, is somewhat more expanded than the themes can bear: its beauties are manifest but somewhat over-extended, and when it gets to its conclusion, it sounds as if it ends twice. Oddly, the first and second movements are about the same length (12 to 13 minutes), which is the length of the third and fourth put together. Partly for this reason, the symphony sounds somewhat bifurcated. The third movement contrasts strongly with the second, with a bubbly, rhythmically emphatic opening and exclamatory passages that create a mood approaching exuberance. The joviality continues throughout, even in the more-lyrical Trio, whose pleasantries are accentuated by well-considered woodwind touches that reappear, amusingly, at the very end. The fourth movement then returns to the more-somber mood of the first two, afterwards becoming propulsive in its forward momentum – and eventually becoming assertive in ways that the first two movements are not, so the symphony ends quite decisively.

     This very interesting release also includes selections from Bruch’s stage music. His first opera, Die Loreley, is represented by its overture, which is filled with Mendelssohnian themes and flow. There is very sumptuous scoring for strings, with only hints of the tragic story heard behind the lyricism. Although there are passages indicating unhappiness, that troubled feeling is expressed through music of great beauty.

     From Bruch’s second opera, Hermione, based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, there are three excerpts. The Prelude starts with almost religious first notes that then move into slow, very gradual, expansive themes, and then to an exceptionally beautiful, lyrical cantilena. The warmth of the strings is outstanding here. The Funeral March is quiet and suitably sad at the start, with effective use of pizzicato strings throughout, along with very expressive brass. Eventually the work builds to trumpet calls and a brass chorale with percussion – a section that is dramatic but somewhat overdone. Trevino also conducts a short Entr’acte that contrasts quick sections with slower and more-dramatic ones, ending with a flowing pastoral section.

     Also here is the Prelude from Bruch’s secular oratorio Odysseus, after Homer’s epic. There is quiet yearning in the strings’ middle range at the opening, likely reflecting Odysseus’ feelings because of his long-delayed return home; afterwards, the brass chorale sets a stately mood, and harp touches are repeatedly and effectively employed.

     All Bruch’s music here shows exceptional skill in thematic construction, great lyrical beauty in orchestration and presentation, and a sure sense of dramatic cohesion both in stage works and in the pure music of the symphonies. What is quite clear from this excellent release is that Bruch, however much he may have deserved to have his contemporaries turn their backs on him because of his musical conservatism and unpleasant personality, produced music of lasting beauty and lasting value. Trevino’s performances argue strongly that it is time to get past Bruch’s mixed-at-best reputation and allow more of his finely crafted music to be heard both in concert and in recorded form.

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