BRUCH: String Octets; String Quintet – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion 

The aging German master displays his melodic and often explosive temper in three late string works.

BRUCH: String Octet in E-flat Major; String Quintet in a minor; String Octet in B-flat Major – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion CDA68168, 62:48 (3/31/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

The three chamber works by Max Bruch (rec. 18-20 April 2016) here performed by the talented Nash Ensemble testify to the resurgence of the composer’s late interest in the medium, all of the pieces having been conceived 1918-1920. Even in the throes of WW I, Bruch managed to find inspiration through his association with violinist Willy Hess, virtuoso and pedagogue at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Berlin. Throughout these string ensemble works, we feel that both Brahms and Mendelssohn have exerted their respective spells and influences upon Bruch, though his own natural capacity for melodic utterance remains his own.

The opening work, the String Quintet in E-flat, proffers four movements, the first of which, Andante con moto, serves an introductory function for the ensuing Allegro. This movement projects a more symphonic cast, with the two violas – Lawrence Power and James Boyd – filling out the often dramatic outbursts. The songful Andante con moto seems to recall motifs we might know from Bruch’s symphonies. A cyclical bridge tune from the work’s beginning leads us to the energetic last movement, broken as it is into two sections, Andante con motoAllegro ma non troppo vivace – the latter the same tempo designation for the Brahms Violin Concerto, which it resembles not only in its rondo form, but in the highly bravura writing for the lead violin, Stephanie Gonley. The last pages and coda strike us for the richness and breadth of the textures, the coda theme’s having been lifted from the composer’s  Symphony No.  3.

The a minor Quintet has a clear date ascribed to the score: 17 November 1918. A short, slow introduction, first-violin heavy, marked by a falling interval of the diminished seventh. The sudden surge of energy that follows easily looks to both Beethoven and Brahms as idols. The lyrical secondary theme allows Bruch to work out his motifs in sonata-form. The middle voices – violas and cello Adrian Brendel – work out the intricacies of development, and the meandering bass line has its own allure. The gradual build up of voices and stretti well recall Mendelssohn and Brahms as models. The first violin intones the better part of serenade and virtuoso solo part in the midst of some thick harmonization before it takes us back – over emotional utterances from the lower strings. The first violin leads us by flowing and circuitous routes to the coda, which has moments of Mediterranean dancing. The Allegro molto that follows, too, enjoys a robust 6/8 tarantella hue. The counter theme is all legato, but the playful atmosphere prevails, although the sliding transition figures definitely mean to exhibit virtuosity. Bruch penchant – like that of Mozart and Schubert – of recasting a good tune used prior comes to the fore in the Adagio non toppo, here recycling a theme from the Serenade on Swedish Folk Tunes (1915).  An extended, lushly harmonized love-song marks the Adagio non troppo, once more augmented by concertante first violin writing that exploits the sound of a salon concerto. The solo violin executes runs and roulades galore in the final Allegro, before a bucolic secondary tune calms the atmosphere in the course of three episodes. Molten heat marks the polyphony that ensues, with the tenor instruments in hot pursuit of the violin’s top line. One enchanted episode involves a melodic line over pizzicatos and a weaving bass that bears comparison to the best lyrical writing in Dvorak. The coda vibrates with symphonic impetus.

After the death of his wife Clara Bruch in 1919, Max Bruch felt the need to re-score one of his quintets into the B-flat Major Octet, scored for a double string quartet in the manner of Mendelssohn, but containing only three movements. The opening Allegro moderato makes use of a virile viola lead – Lawrence Power – to declaim a dramatic tune whose broken phrases will supply matter in the supporting parts as the sonata-form works itself out rather expansively. The cello line quite sings ardently while the first violin asserts the usual Bruch capacity for highly versatile filigree. Echo effects and drooping figures play out sonorously, as is Bruch’s wont. The passionate energy becomes significant and compelling, the way many a Mendelssohn overture achieves a ferocious, learned resolution.

The middle movement, an e-flat minor Adagio, bears the imprint of Schubert’s melancholy and mysterious harmony. The lyrical impulse finds a foil in martial figures that soon break up into sighing gestures. Certainly, the music plays as a likely elegy for the departed Clara Bruch. The music does not merely languish, however; the solo violin commands a series of episodes that may possess nostalgia within the figures, but the mood opens out to a sense of loving spaciousness. The last movement, Allegro molto, combines aspects of scherzo and finale.  A blistering attack cedes to a series light, flexible interchanges with violin’s dancing over sumptuous harmonies beneath, rather Italianate and heartily dramatic. Violin and cello lines blend affectionately, a tender serenade. The opening firestorm returns, somewhat tempered by the dance elements. A sudden harmonic shift leads to more arioso utterance from the violin; and with the seductive ebbs and flows from the ensemble – reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s concert-rondo for piano and orchestra,
Op. 29 – the lead violin and tutti cascade to an affirmative conclusion.

Throughout the survey of these three quintets, Recording Engineer & Producer Phil Rowland has ensured our ears have missed nothing from an integrated, perfectly balanced body of kindred spirits.

—Gary Lemco

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