Poor Max Bruch, a composer whose substantial output is completely overshadowed by the immense popularity of two (of his four) violin concertos. But Bruch’s conservatism wasn’t dry and fusty. He was, after all, a fine melodist and a gifted contrapuntist. Both of those characteristics really bubble over in the two late String Quintets and the Octet, all written over the last couple years of his life (between 1918 and ’20) and now out on a fine new recording from the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion.
The Nash players do their parts to bring the set to life. Bruch’s haunting lyricism is always given pride of place: the achingly beautiful slow movement of the E-flat Quintet sings, as does the pensive Adagio of the A-minor Quintet and the strict, sometimes martial central movement of the Octet.
But there’s more to this music than just lots of pretty, slow episodes. The colorful moments—from the liquidy opening of the E-flat Quintet’s first movement to the bustling, explosive beginning of the Octet’s finale—come magically to life here. And Bruch’s spirited, scherzando-ish writing (which is really a significant part of his style only partly tapped in the violin concertos and Scottish Fantasy) is always articulated with lightness and precision.
Violinist Stephanie Gonley is the front-and-center star of most of the album, playing with sweet, warm tone and occasional touches of portamento. But the writing for the rest of the group is involved, especially during the various vigorous finales. The playing of the Nash Ensemble is quite lively, well-balanced, and attuned to the expressive nuances of Bruch’s style. Adrian Brendel anchors the group with some sonorous cello playing in the Quintets; he’s joined by bassist Peter Buckoke to fill out a robust bass section in the Octet.
In all, the album’s a more-than welcome triumph for Hyperion and the Nash Ensemble, but also for Bruch, whose wider catalogue certainly deserves (and can use) advocacy of just this kind.