Bruch: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Michael Halasz, Staatskapelle Weimar. Naxos 8.570994.

Max Bruch (1838-1920) wasn't exactly renowned for his symphonies, even though he wrote three of them.  Violin concertos, yes, and cello concertos, choral works, and such. Consequently, we don't get many recordings of his symphonies, and whether you like them or not, it is instructive to have his first two on this disc, conducted by Michael Halasz and played by one of the world's oldest ensembles, the Staatskapelle Weimar.

Bruch started his Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 28, in 1867, dead in the middle of the Romantic period of classical music. And it sounds it. The composer dedicated the work to Brahms, whose music obviously influenced him greatly, given that much of Bruch's first symphony reminds one of warmed-over Brahms.

There's a quiet beginning to the Allegro of the Symphony No. 1, followed by a big, theatrical central subject. Then, the Scherzo seems for all the world like something out of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, at least for a while before taking a turn at more original and more lyrical content.  Bruch marks the slow third movement "grave" for good reason, yet it is not entirely funereal. The final movement is the most innovative (and cheery) of the lot, pressing on with a lively rhythmic vigor.

Bruch wrote his Symphony No. 2 in f minor, Op. 36, in 1870. It's in three movements rather than the traditional four, three movements without a Scherzo; just two Allegros with an Adagio in between:  fast-slow-fast, much as a concerto might read.  The music is big and melodramatic, with shadings not only of Brahms again but of Beethoven and Schumann as well, yet with nothing as tuneful or engaging.

After listening to the album, I can understand why not many people have recorded the material before. The sad fact is, Bruch's first two symphonies are not very memorable or imaginative. The best I can say for them is that they are short, clocking in at about a half an hour each. Since I couldn't remember having heard either of them before, I couldn't tell you how well other conductors have interpreted them. However, I suspect that not even the most-resourceful conductor could do much more with the music than Maestro Halasz does.

Like the music itself, the sound on this 2010 Naxos album, recorded in 2008, is rather mundane and workaday, being a little on the dark, soft, cloudy, murky, harsh side. It's perfectly acceptable, mind you, just nothing to get too excited about, with little in it that impresses the listener much, little that provides the transparency, bass, or dynamic punch needed to bring it to life.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa