Jack Liebeck’s recording (10-11 Dec. 2014) extends Hyperion’s The Romantic Violin Concerto series (as Volume 21), here with Max Bruch’s 1877 Second Concerto, a work known to us primarily through the efforts of Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman. The inspirational force for this alternately lyrical and stentorian piece, Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), had worked with Bruch at the Frankfurt and Wiesbaden premieres of the g minor Concerto. The opening movement, in sonata form, casts two opposing ideas after having begun with a mournful Adagio. Some elegant work in the French horns accompanies Liebeck’s suave arioso. His instrument, by the way, soars as only the “Ex-Wilhelmj” Guadagnini of 1785 can. The martial elements move heavily, processional in a tonal syntax similar to that of Mendelssohn.
The second movement Recitativo: Allegro moderato might claim Louis Spohr as its spiritual godfather, especially his Concerto No 8 Song-Scene. Bruch resorts to his “responsory” style, having the orchestra “comment upon” or react to the various plaints from the soloist. Vibrant, acerbic double-stops mark Liebeck’s part; and the melodic tissue—between “highland” calls to war—easily conjures aspects of the Scottish Fantasy. The horns usher in the last movement, Allegro molto, an active finale rife with tremolando effects and galloping hooves, all in sonata-form. The aerial virtuosity of Liebeck’s part testifies to Bruch’s having written to suit Sarasate’s natural capacity for dazzle and bravura, in which the soft, pp passages captivate us as readily as does the exalted high dudgeon of the forte passages.
The two-movement Konzertstück (1910) remained a favorite composition of the composer; curiously, I had never heard it until Salvatore Accardo recorded it some 40 years ago. Bruch had a new violin acolyte in Willy Hess, a star pupil of Joseph Joachim. American virtuoso Maud Powell found the work attractive enough to record (in 1911) a highly edited version of the second movement Adagio, to which Bruch strenuously objected. The orchestral interludes from Brabbins and his BBC Scottish Orchestra well compete with the contribution Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra added to Accardo’s splendid playing. Once more, Bruch’s natural capacity for melodic elegance comes to the fore in the G-flat Adagio, given the composer’s access to Irish folksong, particularly The little red lark. The rhapsodic idyll weaves an unbroken spell in the composer’s patented, lush syntax.
The concerted, one-movement In memoriam (1893) Bruch considered his finest work. The color scheme of the piece includes an English horn, contra-bassoon, and cymbals and tympani, the latter of which are brushed rather than struck. An extended, instrumental elegy in sonata-form, the work would seem to mark the fin-de-siecle of Romanticism, rather than a testament to any revered hero. Some of the scoring may nod to Schumann and that particularly German sense of personal and pastoral nostalgia, especially when Liebeck and Brabbins indulge the secondary, a minor theme from this opulent score. At several points in the closing minutes, I felt a valedictory emotion reminiscent of passages from Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.
A decidedly ornate piece, the 1890 Adagio appassionato—dedicated to Joseph Joachim—appears a natural heir to the Schumann tradition. A plethora of ardent emotions glides forth, lushly scored and brilliantly adapted to what must have been—if Liebeck’s stunning realization bears the testimony—Joachim’s smooth traversal of upper registers in breathed phrases. A rapt meditation, this work—as do all three of the concertante pieces—cries for more public exposure than has been their wont in our concert halls. Superb sound qualities, courtesy of the reliable efforts of recording engineer Simon Eadon.