‘It’s a damned difficult thing to do,’ Max Bruch once despaired. ‘Between 1864 and 1868 I rewrote my G minor violin concerto at least half a dozen times!’ Even after the much-revised first version had been premiered in 1866, he sought the expert opinion of both Ferdinand David (who had played a vital role in helping to shape Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto) and David’s most celebrated pupil, Joseph Joachim, to whom Bruch’s Concerto is dedicated in fond appreciation.
Joachim’s input proved so fundamental that Bruch completely rewrote the opening two movements, incorporating many of the great violinist’s amendments along the way. Most crucial of these was the suggestion he should dovetail the opening movement into the central Adagio. Bruch then spent a further two years refining his ideas, including three passages in the finale that were variously rethought or junked altogether. Working up to the wire before finally submitting the concerto for publication, Bruch’s autograph score is littered with last-minute excisions, alterations and changes in page numbers.
The sad irony was that having produced a virtually infallible masterwork, Bruch never quite rekindled its incandescent genius during the 52 years of creative life remaining to him. A letter sent to his family from Italy in 1903 reveals the composer at the end of his tether. Describing his frustration at student violinists hovering in wait on street corners, attempting to assail him with their rendition of his concerto, he despairs ‘Devil take the whole lot of them!’ As if to rub salt into his wounds he impulsively accepted a one-off payment for his magnum opus from his publisher. As a result, the concerto that brought him international fame and was played constantly the world over earned him not a single pfennig in royalties.
With an illusionist’s sleight-of-hand, Bruch constantly toys with our perceptions in his G minor Concerto, as can be savoured in a classic performance from Kyung-Wha Chung at the height of her 1970s popularity, captured in a rare studio recording with conductor Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The overall impression is of a work overflowing with singable tunes, yet Bruch actually presents us with a series of inspired lyrical ideas which are meditated upon as they unfold, rather than fully-fledged melodies in the manner of Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky.
Such is the impassioned intensity of Bruch’s writing that the outer movements create the excited illusion of scorching solo virtuosity, yet in truth it is one of the most playable of all the great violin concertos. Furthermore, although the explosive nature of the orchestral tuttis in all three movements possess an almost (Richard) Straussian opulence, a glance at the score reveals relatively modest forces virtually identical to those for the Beethoven Concerto, except for the addition of two horns.
Bruch’s delight in the unconventional is evident from the very opening (0:15), with subdued woodwind fleshing out the descending melodic thirds that eventually drive the main theme onwards in the cellos and basses, sounded pizzicato (1:36). Bruch provides an instant clue to the concerto’s melodic tendency by having the solo violin introduce itself with a pair of recitativos (0:30 and 1:09) that set up the main ‘theme’ (1:39). This actually turns out to be an ingenious pseudo-extemporisation, designed to emphasise two crucial intervals – the falling third already encountered and a rising fourth, which turn out to be the concerto’s most vital melodic components. By creating an irresistible sense of the soloist spinning a web of sound around core thematic motifs, Bruch also ingeniously negates the need for the pyrotechnical reminiscences of a traditional solo cadenza.
Following Mendelssohn’s example (and Joachim’s suggestion), Bruch casts the idyllic slow movement (8:49) as an oasis of calm in the wake of a storm, as a swirling climax (8:04) subsides from fortissimo passion to music of the utmost tenderness. He then gradually raises the emotional temperature, until unleashing an orchestral eruption (15:04) unmistakably recalled in homage by Richard Strauss at the ‘Summit’ of his Alpine Symphony. Once again, Bruch leads the ear on effortlessly in the finale, setting up our expectations with a tantalising, crescendoing anticipation (17:46) of the soloist’s indelible main theme (18:10). The work’s exultant high spirits are rounded out with an exuberant flourish (25:00), crowned by the descending thirds with which the work began, only now played by the soloist and massed violins in the major mode at a breathless Presto con fuoco (‘as fast as possible and fiery’).
Max Bruch (1838 - 1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 26
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 Cadenza by Fritz Kreisler
Max Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto continues to enjoy wide popularity, while much of his music remains unknown to modern audiences. He was born in Cologne in 1838, the son of a Government official and a mother who was well known as a teacher and singer. He was himself to enjoy a reputation as both conductor and composer, and was for a time conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, before taking up a similar position in Breslau. From 1891 until his retirement in 1910 he was entrusted with the composition master-class at the Berlin Musikhochschule, an appointment of considerable prestige.
The G Minor Violin Concerto avoids traditional form, its first movement a Prelude that opens with a quasi-improvisatory passage for the soloist. There is a second, contrasting theme in B flat major, and some development of this material, before the second, slow movement, which follows without a break. Here the violin opens with a melody of great emotional intensity, in the key of E flat, providing the main source of thematic material for the movement.
A brief linking passage leads us safely to the finale in the key of G major and the entry of the solo violin in a mood that must remind us of the last movement of the concerto by Brahms. This opening forms the principal theme of the movement, although further opportunities are provided for the soloist, with rapid passage-work as well as a typically forceful romantic theme.
Bruch showed his concerto to Brahms and played it through to him, with a great deal of enthusiasm and sweat. The older composer, not known for his tact, stood up when the performance was over and walking over to the piano took a sheet of the score, feeling it between fingers and thumb and remarking âWhere do you buy your music paper? First rate!â The concerto has impressed other listeners rather more deeply.
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double bass player and a woman thirteen years his senior, who kept a small haberdasher's shop. It seemed at first as if he might follow his father's relatively humble profession as an orchestral player, but his ability as a pianist and as a composer, the latter ability fostered by his generous teacher Marxsen, suggested higher ambitions. After a period of hack work, teaching and playing in dockside taverns, he had his first significant success in a tour with the Hungarian violinist Remenyi in 1853. Friendship with the violinist Joachim led to an unproductive visit to Liszt in Weimar and to a more fruitful meeting with Schumann, now established in Duesseldorf as director of music. It was Schumann who detected in the young musician a successor to Beethoven, a forbidding prognostication. Brahms was to continue his relationship with Clara Schumann after her husband's breakdown and subsequent death in 1856.
It was not until 1864 that Brahms settled finally in Vienna, having failed to realise his first ambition for recognition in his native Hamburg. In Vienna he became an established figure, known for his tactlessness and occasional rudeness, but proclaimed by his friends the champion of pure music against the eccentricities of Liszt and Wagner, a role which his four great symphonies did much to reinforce. He died of cancer in April, 1897, at the age of 64.
Brahms completed his Violin Concerto in 1878 and dedicated it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The relationship with the violinist was later to suffer through the composer's lack of tact, when he tried to intervene in a dispute between Joachim and his wife, the singer Amalie Joachim, who brought evidence of her husband's faults of character in a letter written to her by Brahms. The breach was in part repaired by the later composition of the Double Concerto for violin and cello in 1887, a peace offering.
Following his usual custom, Brahms worked on the Violin Concerto during his summer holiday at Poertschach, where in 1877 he had started his Second Symphony. The first performance of the work was given in Leipzig on New Year's Day, 1879, with Joachim as the soloist. The concerto combines two complementary aspects of the composer, that of the artist concerned with the great and serious, as a contemporary critic put it, and that of the lyrical composer of songs. As always Brahms was critical of his own work, and the concerto, long promised, had been the subject of his usual doubts and hesitations. Originally four movements had been planned, but in the end the two middle movements were replaced by the present Adagio, music that Brahms described as feeble but that pleased Joachim as much as it has always pleased audiences.
The first movement opens with an orchestral exposition in which the first subject is incompletely presented in the initial bars. Its full appearance is entrusted to the soloist, after the orchestra has offered a second subject and other themes that will later seem eminently well suited to the solo violin. The actual entry of the soloist and the approach to it must remind us of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with its rather longer orchestral exposition that had so taxed the patience of Viennese audiences seventy years earlier. The cadenza Brahms left to Joachim, whose advice on this and other matters he was willing to heed. In this recording, Takako Nishisaki plays the cadenza by Fritz Kreisler. The slow movement is splendidly lyrical, based on a melody of great beauty, which is expanded and developed by the soloist and the orchestra, dying away before the vigorous opening of the Hungarian-style finale. This, in rondo form, is of great variety, intervening episodes providing a contrast with the energetic principal theme, leading to a conclusion of mounting excitement.
Takako Nishizaki is one of Japan's finest violinist. After studying with her father, Shinji Nishizaki, she became the first student of Shinichi Suzuki, the creator of the famous Suzuki Method of teaching children to play the violin. Subsequently she went to Japan's famous Toho School of Music and to Juilliard in the United States, where she studied with Joseph Fuchs.
Takako Nishizaki won Second Prize in the 1964 Leventritt International Competition (First Prize went to Itzhak Perlman), First Prize in the 1967 Juilliard Concerto Competition (with Japan's Nobuko Imai, the well-known viola-player), and several awards in lesser competitions. She was only the second student at Juilliard, after Michael Rabin, to win her school's coveted Fritz Kreisler Scholarship, established by the great violinist himself.
Takako Nishizaki is one of the most frequently recorded violinists in the world today. She has recorded ten volumes of her complete Fritz Kreisler Edition, many contemporary Chinese violin concertos, among them the Concerto by Du Ming-xin, dedicated to her, and a growing number of rare, previously unrecorded violin concertos, among them concertos by Spohr, De Beriot, Cui, Respighi, Rubinstein and Joachim. For Naxos she has recorded Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, Sonatas by Mozart and the Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bruch and Brahms concertos.
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work of its distinguished conductors. These included Vaclav Talich (1949 - 1952), Ludovit Rajter and Ladislav Slovak. The Czech conductor Libor PeÅ¡ek was appointed resident conductor in 1981, and the present Principal Conductor is the Slovak musician Bystrik Rezucha. ZdenÃ©k KoÅ¡ler has also had a long and distinguished association with the orchestra and has conducted many of its most successful recordings, among them the complete symphonies of Dvorak.
During the years of its professional existence the Slovak Philharmonic has wori(ed under the direction of many of the most distinguished conductors from abroad, from Eugene Goossens and Malcolm Sargent to Claudio Abbado, Antal Dorati and Riccardo Muti.
The orchestra has undertaken many tours abroad, including visits to Germany and Japan, and has made a large number of recordings for the Czech Opus label, for Supraphon, for Hungaroton and, in recent years, for the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. These recordings have brought the orchestra a growing international reputation arid praise from the critics of leading international publications.
The American conductor Stephen Gunzenhauser was educated in New York, continuing his studies at Oberlin, at the Salzburg Mozarteum, at the New England Conservatory and at Cologne State Conservatory. His period at the last of these was the result of a Fulbright Scholarship, followed by an award from the West German Government and a first prize in the conducting competition held in the Spanish town of Santiago.
During the last two decades, Gunzenhauser has enjoyed a varied and distinguished career, winning popularity in particular for his work with the Delaware Symphony, an orchestra which he has recently conducted on an eight-concert tour of Portugal.
For the Marco Polo label Stephen Gunzenhauser has recorded wori(s by Bloch, Lachner, Taneyev, Liadov, Gliere and Rubinstein, and for NAXOS Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, Beethoven Overtures, the Borodin Symphonies and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony and Rachmaninov's Second. He is currently engaged in recording all the symphonies and symphonic poems of Dvorak also for NAXOS.