Max Bruch (1838-1920)
You might think that the haunting brief Adagio (8:53 in the Piatigorsky-Ormandy recording, 9:56 in the Starker-Dorati) we're hearing tonight, based on one of the most solemn of Hebrew chants, is a product of its composer's deeply felt heritage. as Paul Affelder explained in his note for the Starker-Dorati-Mercury recording, this is far from the case.
It is a sort of musical compliment to Max Bruch's long devotion to folk music that what is considered one of his most representative works should have sprung from an alien tradition. Along with his First Violin Concerto, Kol Nidrei, an "Adagio for violoncello based on a Hebrew melody," is today the most frequently heard composition by a composer who was a contemporary of Brahms, but who survived him by almost a quarter of a century. The traditional Hebrew chant has been treated with such conviction, however, by this Lutheran grandson of an eminent German clergyman, that it is more familiar to concertgoers than his earlier Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (Op. 37).
Bruch had a lifelong devotion to folk music and became somewhat of an authority on Geman, Russian, and Swedish music, some of which he drew upon in his Songs and Dances (Op. 63 and Op. 79). His Adagio on Celtic Melodies and better-known Scottish Fantasy (Op. 46) explore yet other sources, and his deep interest in folk art might well have influenced Vaughan Williams when that celebrated folklorist stuied with him.
International in his travels as in his musical interests, Bruch was serving as conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society at the time he composed Kol Nidrei. It received its first performance, however, at a concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on October 20, 1881.
For the basis of his composition, Bruch quite literally drew upon what is regarded as one of the most sacred of Hebrew melodies, customarily chanted on the even of the Day of Atonement. This prayer, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia explains, serves to annul "all vows made in any form whatsoever during the course of the year, insofar as they concern one's own person."
The personalized solemnity of the original melody is most appropriately paralleled by the timbre of the solo cello, which intones it first, unadorned. Variations expand on the original theme and lead to a secondary subject, pronounced by the orchestra first, this time, and then assigned to the solo instrument. The original theme is recalled as the work concludes in a somber mood.
BRUCH: Kol Nidrei (Adagio on a Hebrew melody), Op. 47
János Starker, cello; London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. Mercury, recorded July 1962
Gregor Piatigorsky, cello; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Dec. 28, 1947
IN THIS WEEK'S SUNDAY CLASSICS POST
If Kol Nidrei is Bruch's second-best-known work, the best-known surely is his G minor Violin Concerto. We'll be listening to it.