BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy; Violin Concerto – Academy of St Martin in the Fields/ Joshua Bell, violin and conductor – Sony  

Joshua Bell’s new traversal of Max Bruch two mighty violin scores has sinew and tenderness, as required.

BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46; Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 – Academy of St Martin in the Fields/ Joshua Bell, violin and conductor – Sony  19075 84200 2, 55:40 (6/22/18) ****:

Max Bruch (1838-1920) follows both Haydn and Beethoven in his appreciation of Scottish folk song, and his 1880 Fantasy for Violin and Harp on Scottish Folk Tunes features the harp as a means of invoking the bardic element into his setting of several tunes of romantic and martial character. Bruch had been working on a dramatic cantata, Das Feuerkreuz (The Cross of Fire) based on Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. Joshua Bell and his ensemble (rec. 8-9 September 2017) open the highland proceedings in E-flat minor, intoning the warm sentiments of “Thro’ the Wood, Laddie.”  The harp solo (Bryn Lewis) brings the “glorious times of old” motif, presented in the context—similar to what Smetana does in “The High Castle”—of contemplating an old ruin of a castle that has known glory and renown.

Bell invokes a haunted atmosphere of olden times in a leisurely unfolding of his theme in E-flat minor, Bell’s violin in lyrical recitative against strings and harp. The music progresses in swells into E-flat Major, the melody’s having been derived from his 1863 treatment of 12 Scottish Songs.  The adaptation sonorous tugs at the heartstrings, and Bell places himself in the midst of harp, string, and horn sonorities, double-stopping to drive the poignancy ever deeper.

Bruch invokes a lively tune for his dance movement,The Dusty Miller, with the  low vibrating string section’s imitating bagpipes, along with the open chords on the bass. Unlike the Heifetz performances of this movement, Bell plays the movement uncut. Bruch adorns the simple and vigorous melody with rhetorical commentary from the violin. Bruch later slows down the pace to bring a sentimental reminiscence of the first movement’s melody, which serves as a (militant) transition to the slow third movement, based on a plaintively affecting I’m a’ Doun for Lack o’ Johnnie. Marked Andante sostenuto, the music achieves a lyrical grace that must have appealed to Bruch’s memories of his mother, a gifted soprano’s, love of arioso, here played out in variations in the solo over the main theme.

Portrait of Max BruchSimilar to Mendelssohn’s example in the Scottish Symphony in A minor, Bruch adopts the marking Allegro guerriero (a “warlike” Allegro) for his final movement. The original tune, Scots, Wha Hae, bears the oldest pedigree of those used in the Scottish Fantasy, dating back to the Middle Ages and associated by legend with Robert the Bruce (specifically, his apocryphal defeat of a much larger English army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314). New lyrics were provided by none other than Robert Burns, when James Johnson published the melody in his Musical Museum. Bell executes vigorous triple stops and an elevated, sentimental sonority as he joins the harp in affectionate reminiscence. Bruch capitalizes on the tune’s rhetorical, martial power, the impulse given in constant repetition. Bruch contrasts the more tender moments with another recollection of the opening movement, a cyclical maneuver, coming to a definitive, resolved fit of defiance with a last, jingoistic gathering of forces for Scots, Wha Hae.

For the popular 1866 G minor Concerto, Bell has nothing but zealous passion, perhaps to the point of exaggerating the melodic periods, but always relishing his arched, aristocratic line.  We know that Bruch consulted with Joseph Joachim on the solo part, and both men clearly relished the composition’s similarity to aspects of the Mendelssohn Concerto.  Bell brings the kind of razor-sharp intonation that marked the various realizations of the work by the late American virtuoso, Michael Rabin (1936-1972), who made an equally impassioned recording from a Berlin broadcast with Thomas Schippers. Sizzling and majestic, the performance will likely wind up on “recording of the week” lists on various radio stations.  The work itself transcends its popular appeal, if that is any recommendation. The sonic production, courtesy of Adam Abelhouse, is first rate.

—Gary Lemco

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