* BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26; Romance in F Major, Op. 85; String Quintet in A Minor, Op. posth. – Vadim Gluzman, violin / Sandis Šteinbergs, violin (Quintet) / Maxim Rysanov and Ilze Klava, viola / Reinis Birznieks, cello / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Litton – BIS multichannel SACD, SACD-1852 [Distr. by Qualiton], 58:04 *****:
In no way could Max Bruch be thought of as a one-work composer, when at least three of his compositions are firmly ensconced in the repertoire. But as well loved as his Scottish Fantasy and Kol Nidre are, they can’t hold a candle in popularity to the Violin Concerto No. 1 of 1867. In later years the concerto became a bête noire for the composer since it eclipsed his other works, including his Second and Third Concertos, which Bruch insisted were just as good, if not better (they’re not, of course). Horst Scholz’s notes to this recording include an amusing poem that Bruch penned to express his woes over his most famous work:
Police injunction regarding M. B.’s First Concerto
As recently the astonishing fact has manifested itself
That violins have started to play the First Concerto on their own,
We hasten to announce, to reassure anxious souls,
That we are hereby strictly proscribing the said concerto.
The First Concerto proved to be a particularly ill wind for Max Bruch since it not only brought him heartache but failed to bring him fortune: he had given up rights to royalties in favor of a lump-sum payment from his publisher and thus spent his final years in straitened conditions, during and just after the First World War. At least in his lifetime Bruch was celebrated as a choral composer; today, none of his big oratorios such as Odysseus and Moses is ever heard, let alone his once-popular short works such as Schön Ellen.
So here, from Vadim Gluzman and the Bergen Philharmonic, comes the 120th (give or take a few) available recording of the First Violin Concerto. I think even Max Bruch would be gladdened by its appearance because it is certainly one of the finest performances ever committed to disc and is far and away the best sounding inscription of the work I’ve ever heard. In the last few years Ukrainian-born violinist Gluzman has been building quite a celebrated discography, and you can hear why. His tone is vibrant, big and rich, his technique faultless, but more than that he has the ability to inject such emotional weight into this great old warhorse that it seems new-minted. The second movement Adagio is the emotional core of the work, and Gluzman plays it as if it speaks directly to his heart, launching Bruch’s soaring melody with the kind of fervor that, in turn, addresses the listener’s heart. That kind of fervor extends into the spunky Allegro energico finale, which Gluzman, Andrew Litton, and the Bergen orchestra deliver with more light and heat than I’ve ever heard. The gorgeously realistic SACD recording helps them make their case, of course.
The late (1911) Romance, originally scored for viola and orchestra, has shown up on disc a lot lately. It’s the tender-but-meaty sort of short piece that lets a performer showcase his or her interpretive skills since it’s all about deep-felt emotion rather than glitz. It’s a lovely appendix to the concerto, especially in Gluzman’s fine-tuned rendition.
Rather than another work for violin and orchestra, Gluzman turns to one of Bruch’s rare excursions into chamber music. With the exception of a piano quintet that he wrote in the 1880s, Bruch’s chamber works come from the beginning and end of his career. Bruch had confessed to his publisher that he’d rather write “three full oratorios for choir and orchestra than three string quartets.” Yet in the last years of his life, he turned out three chamber works for strings: two quintets and an octet. Perhaps, as Horst Scholz speculates, this was at the bidding of Willy Hess, the violinist and violist whom Bruch consulted for the string-based works of his final years, including the Romance. That would explain why both the quintet and octet are driven by the first violinist, who has virtuoso work to do throughout the two works. Gluzman is certainly the man for the job; he and his colleagues make this richly melodic composition sing and soar as it should.
I ought to mention that there’s an equally fine performance by violinist Ulf Hoelscher and his ensemble on the CPO label, and I actually prefer the recording they receive; the BIS recording for Gluzman, set down in the lively acoustics of a hall at Schloss Nordkirchen in Westphalia, is not as warm or intimate as I’d like. But that can’t detract from a superb performance of Bruch’s quintet or from a recording of the First Concerto that goes straight to the head of the class.
Mack Avenue Records releases a re-mastered vinyl of a Christian McBride duet album.