BRUCH: Symphony No. 3 / Suite on Russian Themes (Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra/ Manfred Honeck) (Naxos: 8.555985)
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Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 51 Suite on Russian Themes, Op. 79b
Today Max Bruch is generally known only as the composer of works for the violin. In addition to the Violin Concerto in G minor, the popularity of which continues, and, to the annoyance of the composer, overshadowed much of his other work, we hear from time to time the Scottish Fantasia and the Second Violin Concerto. The fact that, in his day, Bruch was famous for his large-scale choral works, is now forgotten. Between 1870 and 1900 there were numerous performances of works such as Odysseus, Frithjof or Das Lied von der Glocke, earning for the composer a reputation that outshone that of Brahms. In view of this it is interesting to hear two of the composers orchestral works that have not remained in general concert repertoire.
Max Bruch was born in Cologne on 6th January, 1838, in the same year as Bizet. He studied there with Ferdinand Hiller and Carl Reinecke. Extended journeys at home and abroad as a student were followed by a longer stay in Mannheim, where his opera Loreley was performed in 1863, a work based on a libretto by Geibel and originally dedicated to Mendelssohn, which brought him to the attention of a wider public. Bruchs first official appointments were as Kapellmeister, first in Koblenz (1865-67) and then in Sondershausen
(1867-70), followed by a longer stay in Berlin and a period from 1873 to 1878 in Bonn, when he dedicated himself to composition. After a short time as director of the Sternscher Sangverein in Berlin, in 1880 he was appointed conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and he left England in 1883 to become director of the Orchesterverein in Breslau. In 1891 he moved finally to Berlin and took over master classes in composition, Respighi being one of his pupils. He retired in 1911 to devote himself to composition, and died in Berlin on 2nd October, 1920.
Bruchs third and last symphony, the Symphony in E major, Op. 51, was written in Liverpool to a commission from the New York Symphony Society under Leopold Damrosch, to whom the work is dedicated. It was performed in a preliminary version in 1883 in New York in the presence of the composer, and under the direction of Georg Henschel in Boston. Bruch was not satisfied with the work, which had been based, as he said, on sketches made when he was young, and in Breslau during the following year he made a thorough revision of the first and fourth movements. The final version was first performed in Breslau on 26th October, 1886, followed by performances under Joachim in Berlin and Hans von Bülow in Hamburg. The symphony was published in 1887 by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig.
The symphony has a close motivic relationship with the overture to the opera Loreley in its slow introduction, which leads to a romantic evocation of the Rhineland, later to descend to a commercial, sentimental folk-style mood. While Bruch in both his earlier symphonies took pains with clarity of thematic and formal structure, here, in the Allegro molto vivace, which is in free sonata form, symphonic working gives way to a variously changing succession of images, based on shorter, song-like motifs. In the Adagio possibly intentional reminiscences of Schumanns Fourth Symphony may be detected in the rhapsodic and occasionally pathetic melodies. These sad hints from Schumann may reflect Bruchs disappointment at the fact that he never found a suitable position in his own part of the country. There is nothing of this in the dance-like Scherzo, which, unusually for Bruch, is in rondo form. In the best late-Romantic tradition the movement represents a description of Rhineland life. Whether one hears a wine-festival or the bustle of carnival is left to the listeners imagination. The strictly-formed final movement has a spirited principal theme, one of Bruchs strongest melodic inspirations, and confirms the direct character of the work. The symphony is, in fact, a revelation of Bruchs love for his native Rhineland, as he confessed in a letter to the biographer of Bach, Philip Spitta: "This symphony is a work of life, of joy
and it should have the title On the Rhine Am Rhein, since it is a real expression of Rhineland love of life".
Nearly two decades later, in 1903, Bruch wrote his orchestral Suite on Russian Themes, Op. 79b, a further testimony to his interest in folk-music after the Scottish Fantasia and the Swedish Dances, Op. 63. The work is based on the Songs and Dances on Russian and Swedish Folk-Melodies, Op. 79, for violin and piano, written in the same year. Bruch took four numbers from the earlier work and transposed the first of the new cycle into
B flat minor, provided modulatory introductions to the second and fourth piece and composed a new fifth piece, returning to B flat minor. The melodies were drawn from Balakirevs Recueil de chants populaires russes, published in Leipzig in 1898, and the composer, by the use of polyphonic elements and colourful modulation, brings out the character of the melodies. Orchestration makes use of cor anglais, tuba, cymbals, triangle and harp, to excellent effect. The strongest impression is made by the dance-like second piece, the ceremonial funeral march of the fourth and the unusual rhythmic fascination of the last. The Suite, which had its first performance in Barmen in 1903, was published in the following year. It illustrates very clearly the principal features of Bruchs work, stemming from Mendelssohn and developed in the idiom of late Romanticism, characterized by blandness and lack of contrast, which nevertheless in his hands achieved a warmth and feeling, marked by its breadth of melody.