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Christopher Fifield
MusicWeb International, December 2010

There have been or still are at least a dozen recordings of Bruch’s three symphonies, five of the first, three of the second and four of the third, each of which made an impact in their day—respectively 1868, 1870 and 1882—and the first two of which went some way to fill the gap between Schumann’s last and Brahms’ first over a remarkably long period of a quarter century. Carl Dahlhaus credits no one with writing any meaningful symphonies during this time, but the evidence would indicate otherwise thanks to those by Bruch, Dietrich, Lachner, Hiller, Rufinatscha, Gernsheim, Draeseke, Volkmann and others. These symphonists are not to be dismissed out of hand.

Compared to Conlon (EMI), Masur (Philips), Hickox (Chandos), Schmalfuss (mdg) and Wildner (ebs), the conductor here, Michael Halász persistently takes swift tempi. At times it results in a musical gabble of detail; the scherzo of the First Symphony is the main casualty, though to be fair the finale of the same work actually benefits from a faster approach than others take. One feels nevertheless that Halász is embarrassed by the music and seeks to get through it as fast as he can, which does the composer a disservice. One has to accept Bruch’s paucity of ideas in his finales, and his reliance on the arpeggio and the frequent string-scrubbing—which Bruckner was soon to perfect—to get his effects. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The start of the Second Symphony creates the right atmosphere of mystery and foreboding mingled with passion when the Allegro gets going, but again Halász comes in at two or three minutes faster than most of his colleagues. On the evidence of this disc, the Staatskapelle Weimar is a fine orchestra, its wind players shape Bruch’s idiomatically Romantic phrasing with delicacy and care while the strings know how to inject fire and warmth as the music builds to the climaxes. However, few, including Halász pick up on or emphasise Bruch’s main theme of the finale; in it he alludes to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth (track 7 at 27:00) in a way that sounds remarkably like the main theme of the finale of Brahms’s First written some six years later. It needs the same sumptuous string tone and texture, even a louder dynamic; here it is understated and goes for nothing.

Naxos now has an impressive five discs of Bruch’s concerted and orchestral music

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, September 2010

Max Bruch (1838–1920) continues to be known almost exclusively by three works that have virtually eclipsed everything else he wrote: the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and the Kol Nidre for cello and’s possible that his most enduringly popular works may not even be his best works, for in my opinion, he was a far better composer than is generally acknowledged.

Of his three symphonies, the first two are presented here. Both scores were produced in rapid succession between 1867 and 1870, sandwiching between them the composer’s First Violin Concerto, which was first performed in its present form by Joseph Joachim in 1868. Bruch dedicated the E-Major Symphony to Brahms and the F-Minor Symphony, not surprisingly, to Joachim, who had just premiered the revised G-Minor Concerto. There is little in either of these works, however, to suggest Brahms as a strong influence; for Bruch’s sin, if you wish to call it that, was his musical conservatism, at least insofar as content is concerned. Form is another matter, as is evidenced in the first two of his violin concertos and Scottish Fantasy, none of which conform to traditional classical models.

While the First Symphony sports a conventional four-movement layout, with the Scherzo placed second, there are some idiosyncratic Bruch oddities. The first movement, for example, even with its customary exposition repeat, wants to cast off its sonata-allegro legacy. The brief introductory statement becomes inextricably entwined with the main thematic material, the development section is not clearly differentiated from the exposition, and the recapitulation is a heavily modified version of its antecedent exposition. Also unusual, though not unprecedented for Bruch, is that all of this is compressed into nine and a half minutes, which, by later 19th-century standards, is quite short, though we see this same condensed brevity in the first movement of the First Violin Concerto.

As for content, Bruch’s models are obvious: Schumann in the first and fourth movements and Mendelssohn in the second and third. In fact, there are moments in the Scherzo and Quasi Fantasia: Grave where Bruch seems to be revisiting Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music and the “Scottish” Symphony of a quarter-century earlier. But the sheer melodiousness of the music and the resplendent orchestration are irresistible.

Formally, the Second Symphony is even more unusual for its time. In only three movements (fast-slow-fast) instead of four, it more closely resembles a concerto than it does a symphony. Yet its three movements combined exceed the First Symphony’s four by six minutes. Content-wise, the minor key makes for a darker-hued, more somber-sounding work. But there’s more to it than that. Mendelssohn and Schumann seem to have faded into the background. The thematic material is not as immediately melodic in a hummable way. Lines are more chromatic, statements more stentorian, almost hectoring at times, and the orchestral fabric granitic. It’s hard to say if at this early date Bruch might have heard something by Bruckner or, if he had, what it might have been, for as of 1870, when Bruch’s Second Symphony was completed, Bruckner had only gotten as far as an early student symphony (1863), the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1866), and the Symphony No. 0 in D Minor (1869). But Bruch’s work does sound closer to early Bruckner than it does to Mendelssohn, Schumann, or to anyone in the Brahms orbit.

Bruch’s symphonies are not without prior representation on disc, but current choice is limited. The main competition to this new Naxos recording with Michael Halász and the Staatskapelle Weimar comes from the long-established Kurt Masur leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, originally and still available on mainline Philips, and reconstituted with a different set of works on a Philips Duo release. It was the Masur recordings through which I first became familiar with Bruch’s symphonies, and they still have a great orchestra and a celebrated conductor going for them.

Halász’s work on disc is well documented, with some 150 recordings to his name. The Weimar Staatskapelle, however, has a much smaller presence on the recording landscape, with some 10 entries currently listed. And its only other team-up with Halász, at least on CD, has been a recent Naxos release of Joseph Joachim’s violin concerto. Frankly, what the Masur/Leipzig performances do not have going for them are great recordings. I always felt the Philips sound was a bit woolly around the edges, taking the bite out of the trumpets and muddying the cellos, double basses, and timpani at the low frequencies. The Naxos recording exhibits wider frequency and dynamic ranges, and seems to have been captured from a mid-hall perspective, making for a very satisfying listening experience.

As for interpretive disparities between Masur and Halász, they strike me as relatively inconsequential. Overall, Masur tends to adopt slightly broader tempos in most movements, but evens out the timings with slightly faster tempos in a couple of instances so that in the end both conductors come within seconds of each other. I think it’s the somewhat opaque sound of the Philips recordings that makes Masur’s readings sound a bit slower than they actually are. Halász, aided by an excellent recording and by very fine playing from his Weimar forces, would now be my first choice for these works...Strongly recommended.

Victor Carr Jr, June 2010

It’s all diligently and cleverly worked out…and you feel a sense of relief when it finally ends.

Michael Halász leads a lively performance of Symphony No. 1 with the Staatskapelle Weimar. They do their best with Symphony No. 2, and it helps that Halász keeps things moving and the textures light…, May 2010

Bruch’s No. 1 shows some influence of Brahms—to whom, in fact, it was dedicated. It also sounds at times like works by Mendelssohn (notably in the Scherzo) and Schumann, and if it has a significant fault, it is that it never quite sounds like Bruch himself, lacking the gorgeously lyrical melodies (usually for strings) for which he is best known. Bruch had finished his overwhelmingly popular Violin Concerto No. 1 the year before he started writing this symphony in 1867, so this is in no sense a “starter” work. It is well formed, traditionally structured and effectively put together, although not especially memorable. The Symphony No. 2 of 1870—in three movements (the last immediately following the second), without a Scherzo—is nevertheless a longer work, and its F minor key keeps it darker than No. 1 in E-flat. Bruch’s Second Symphony has more individual touches, including scoring variations among the movements (the lovely Adagio ma non troppo generally being lighter in instrumentation) and an effectively quiet ending of the first movement. Bits of Bruch’s beautifully flowing themes peek out here and there—in the violas in the finale, for example—and the work as a whole is more emotionally satisfying than the earlier symphony. Staatskapelle Weimar plays these symphonies with warmth and fervor, and Michael Halász conducts with a good sense of control and balance.

Jim Leonard, May 2010

There’s little competition for the best recordings of Bruch’s symphonies, but what competition there is is stiff, very, very stiff. On one side, there are Kurt Masur’s opulent accounts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester from the late ’80s, on the other, there are James Conlon’s urgent readings with the Gurzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker from the mid-’90s. And yet Michael Halász and the Staatskapelle Weimar have found a way to top them both by delivering performances of surpassing warmth and beauty that still have unstoppable drive and momentum in this 2008 recording of Bruch’s First and Second symphonies. One is reminded here and there of the composer of the famous violin concertos, but for the most part, Halász turns in performances of such conviction and authority that it makes one think Bruch’s reputation as a symphonist has been seriously underestimated for the past century and a half. Captured in clear, colorful digital sound, this disc deserves to be heard by all fans of 19th century German symphonic music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

The name of Max Bruch largely remains in the concert hall by just one popular violin concerto, though the two symphonies certainly deserve a place in the repertoire. During his lifetime he was famous for large-scale choral works that have long been forgotten, though financial security through much of his career came from conducting. He regularly programmed the music of a young composer called Brahms and dedicated his First Symphony of 1867 to him. Its style of orchestration certainly owes much to his kinsman, though the scherzo is totally influenced by Mendelssohn. Maybe the slow movement is not his most inspired music, but the finale—the extended part of the score—has energy and imaginative writing to make it highly attractive. Both symphonies came from his period living in Bonn in the late 1860’s, and without a conducting appointment he was, for the first time, able to immerse himself in composition. The Second started life in 1869, and is in three quite extended movements, the influences of Schumann in his ‘Rhenish’ symphony springing to mind in the strong and purposeful outer movements. Maybe the central Adagio does not immediately capture attention, but leads directly into the finale that, like the first symphony, abounds in likeable material. Certainly they could not hope for more beautifully shaped performances than from the highly experienced Michael Halász and the Weimer Staatskapelle. The rounded tone of the strings and the smooth and sonorous brass are ideal for the music, the orchestra in every department rivalling the best that Berlin can offer.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, October 2009

… worthy performances by the Staatskapelle Weimar…heroic conducting of Michael Halasz…

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