Max Bruch – String Quintets and String Octet – The Nash Ensemble [Hyperion]

5 of 5 stars

String Quintet in E-flat, Op.posth
String Quintet in A-minor, Op.posth
String Octet in B-flat, Op.posth

Members of The Nash Ensemble

Recorded 18-20 April 2016 in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: May 2017
Duration: 63 minutes



Hyperion continues its laudable championing of Max Bruch’s music – taking us beyond his “Violin Concerto”. The current chamber pieces are all ‘late’ in Bruch’s output, the pair of two-viola Quintets from 1918 (the year of the composer’s eightieth-birthday) and the Octet from 1920, the year of his death.

Consummately crafted, these three works are (or seem) divorced from current turbulent events, not least World War One (Bruch’s Germany defeated, although he had his English connections, not least in Liverpool), and more personal ones, such as his wife becoming bedbound in 1918 and dying the following year. As for musical revolutions contemporary to Bruch’s life – not just the game-changes introduced by the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – such aspects are not even hinted at, for Bruch’s writing corresponds to that of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, majestic masters of a previous era. Tully Potter’s insightful and informative booklet note offers further background on Bruch’s time and these pieces, not least their “performance history”.

The E-flat Quintet, in four concise movements, blossoms immediately in the opening Andante, blissfully melodic, maybe some sort of wistful escape for the composer. There follows a fiery and agitated Allegro, the listener sucked into its rhythms. A tender Andante ensues, and this endearing score is completed with a Finale that mixes Andante and Allegro elements to contemplative and exuberant effect.

The other Quintet is on a larger scale. Allegro is the marking of the first movement, but the initial pace is spacious, the music searching until an impassioned release is found and sustained, and an energetic if frolicsome Scherzo follows. The heart of the work is an eloquent and richly flowering Adagio – short it may be, but something significant is conveyed – and the Finale is a striving and imposing summation.

The three-movement Octet (four violins, two violas, a cello and Peter Buckoke’s double bass) is a re-working of a Quintet that didn’t satisfy Bruch. It opens pensively and grows organically to an opulently contrapuntal texture for music that counters optimistically Bruch’s declining health and recent bereavement; an example of a composer standing outside of upsetting circumstances. The march-like Adagio suggests Schubert in his ultimate if still-young years, and the Finale melds emotional storm and melodic radiance.

The Nash Ensemble members (including Stephanie Gonley, Laura Samuel, Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel) play superbly and devotedly and are tangibly recorded. Highly recommended.

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